Virtual Education Is Increasingly a Big Profit Center. But at What Cost to Students? 

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S.W. sits in her living room in south St. Louis on a Saturday morning in March. Her son L.W. is still sleeping, but a younger child walks in wearing a pair of headphones with cat ears attached.

A year ago, after their rental home was condemned, S.W. and her family moved into a different house, which she likes better because it is one floor. Things are looking up: L.W. returned to the classroom in fall 2015 at Vashon High School as a sophomore and later started again receiving individualized education program assistance. Prior to that, court documents state, he was reading at a fourth-grade level.

Working with a teacher "one on one instead of a room full of people" is better, his mother says, "because it's easy for [L.W.] to get distracted."

In February, attorneys for Legal Services of Eastern Missouri and the St. Louis Public Schools reached a settlement in L.W.'s case.

In the settlement, the district admits no wrongdoing but agrees to provide $30,000 to L.W. and his mother. The settlement also requires the district to provide students who have been placed in the virtual-education program for disciplinary reasons the right to appeal and requires that the district provide an instructor to monitor the students' performance in the program.

"It concerns me that virtual education is used as a form of discipline," says the family's attorney, Henriquez. "Assuming that a student did" commit an offense, "virtual education might not be the appropriate way to help address those discipline issues."

At SLPS, enrollment in virtual-school programs has also increased in the last few years. In 2014, 201 students were enrolled; this school year, more than 600 were projected, according to a presentation by Carey Cunningham, the district's virtual service-learning coordinator. That's even though the district does not have any reports evaluating the success of the program, as he acknowledges.

"Virtual school is one of the options," said Cunningham, who has worked for the district for 23 years. "Parents in this district have many options — send them to charter schools, public schools, [desegregation programs] and the virtual — so it is just one of the options that is available to students."

And while virtual programs may be failing some students, brick-and-mortar options aren't always successful either. According to data from the state education department, Roosevelt and Vashon — the two high schools that L.W. attended — had 2017 graduation rates of 47 and 50 percent.

Still, it's better than the graduation rates for K12 virtual schools evaluated in the NEPC's 2017 study: 37 percent.

Virtual education's main benefit might be that it lowers both physical costs and labor costs — with average student-to-teacher ratios of 34 to 1, compared to 16 to 1 in brick-and-mortar schools, according to the NEPC study.

But Brown pushes back on the idea that online education is more consumed with making money off kids, not educating them. Sure, it's not for everyone, he acknowledges, but neither are old-school classrooms.

"It's also not as effective for some kids to learn in the traditional classroom as they do in virtual," says Brown. "You know, it's an option. Virtual is not for everybody. It takes a lot of self-discipline, and a lot of kids can't handle that."

On his last day as Missouri governor, Eric Greitens, who resigned June 1 after multiple scandals, signed into law legislation that would allow students anywhere in the state to take free virtual courses. The school district in which the student lives would pay for the course.

Previously, students were allowed to take classes in any district — including, yes, Grandview — during the summer, but had to be either "medically fragile" or in an unaccredited or provisionally accredited district to take virtual courses outside their own district during the school year. Under the new law, a student must only have been enrolled in a public school for one semester to begin taking virtual classes. They must be approved by the student's district, but if it determines that a course is not acceptable, the student now has the right to appeal to the state.

Proponents of the legislation describe it as a way for students in rural areas to take courses that their district does not offer.

"Grandview is exploring their options and hopes to be able to offer something after the governor signs the bill," Brown stated in a news release from the Children's Education Alliance of Missouri, a school-choice advocacy organization. "What we do know is that this is a great thing for the students of Missouri."

Not everyone is certain of that.

"Our concern is that this is not going to actually focus on providing good education for kids, but that this might be an opportunity for for-profit companies to come in and receive state aid to educate students or that this is the beginning of creating a virtual charter school in Missouri," says Susan Goldammer, an attorney and associate executive director with the Missouri School Boards' Association. "The bottom line is that we want to make sure that all courses, all education provided to students using taxpayer dollars, is rigorous and aligned with a school district's curriculum."

The association thinks virtual education "has a lot of potential," Goldammer says. But the success of the new law, she suggests, will depend on how much the state regulates the quality of virtual courses.

She adds, "We are very weary of any sort of scheme that would allow people to profit off of students."

In May, L.W. graduated from Vashon High School. His final year in school, at long last, brought relief, and he's been offered a management position at an Arby's. "I'm happy with how everything is going," his mom reported in April.

Still, that May graduation date meant that L.W. made it through high school in three years, despite being diagnosed with a language impairment and struggling for so many years. His mother explains that L.W. ended up again taking K12 virtual classes, only this time he took them at Vashon, in addition to traditional classes.

Henriquez, the attorney who represented L.W., says the first step for students in circumstances like her client is to "get kids in school, but then looking at the quality of the education is also crucial."

"I think there is a difference between earning credits and actually learning," she says. "That's always been a concern with these programs where you can advance but you're not necessarily learning."

L.W.'s family also now has internet at home. But his mother remains skeptical of virtual education.

"I'm OK with it because [L.W.] is graduating," his mother says. "But I feel like every child needs to be placed with a teacher." 0x006E

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