California Online School Seeks Students, Tax Dollars

September 14, 2010

Ben Adler

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Ben Adler for NPR
TJ Foster is one of 200 students in the Elk Grove Unified School District's Virtual Academy. Each day, at his home in the rural farmland south of Sacramento, Calif., he signs into a website and takes the same subjects he'd take in a traditional brick-and-mortar school.

A school district near Sacramento, Calif., is looking outside the box for new revenue sources in these harsh budget times. Elk Grove Unified has opened up its own Virtual Academy offering complete online curricula for grades kindergarten through 12.

Officials hope to attract home-school students and children from other districts, plus the state tax dollars that come with them. But this kind of online education is also raising some red flags.

The New Virtual Academy

For eighth-grader TJ Foster, school can sound like an educational video. But usually, it sounds like the clicking of a computer mouse.

TJ is one of 200 students in the Elk Grove Unified School District's brand-new Virtual Academy. Each day, at his home in the rural farmland south of Sacramento, he signs into a website and takes the same subjects he'd take in a traditional brick-and-mortar school.

What's a typical day like?

"We look at our daily plan and go through -- usually there's an assessment to see how much I know about the subject," he says. "We have GUM, which is language arts. We read a story. We do some science, do a little bit of math and call it quits by sometime at 1 or 2."

But this isn't home-schooling -- at least, not in the traditional sense.

Is Money A Driving Force?

TJ has a teacher with the school district with whom he'll meet regularly. And he's considered an Elk Grove Unified student, meaning the district gets paid by the state as though TJ physically went to school each day. That's different from the charter school model, where the district loses each student's funds entirely.

"Charter schools have been the primary venue for the provision of online learning for virtual schooling," says Anne Zeman, who works for Elk Grove Unified. "Why can't public schools offer the same?"

University of California, Davis education professor Cynthia Carter Ching says she believes the introduction of the online academy has a lot to do with money.

"Nobody started talking about the virtues of online learning and really wanting to afford parents and students more choices, which is the language Elk Grove uses, until the budget crisis. So you can put two and two together," she says.

California sends school districts roughly $5,000 per student this year. For Elk Grove Virtual Academy students, about half that money stays with the district. The rest goes to a private company called K12. With 70,000 kids in 25 states and Washington, D.C., the company calls itself the nation's largest provider of online education for kindergarten through 12th grade. Still, the Elk Grove Unified model -- where the district manages the virtual academy and splits the funds with K12 -- is relatively new for the company.

"Whether it's a district providing it, a for-profit, a not-for-profit, really shouldn't matter," says Ron Packard, K12's founder and CEO. "What should matter is: Does it work for kids? And I think K12 has now proven that what we do works very well for children."

Differing Curriculum

Still, critics question using public tax dollars to fund what's essentially a private school's curriculum, especially one that differs from state guidelines.

"Their early reading lists focus entirely on fairy tales, Aesop's Fables. And then as you get older, they become more, sort of, admittedly award-winning and classic but yet also very old-fashioned and whitewashed kinds of novels," says Ching.

That's as opposed to more diverse reading lists recommended by many states. K12 also says it doesn't include evolution in its curriculum unless specifically requested by a parent or school district. But Elk Grove Unified's Zeman says she's not concerned.

"In the cases which our teachers believe we need to supplement what's provided by K12, our teachers have the liberty do that," she says.

K12 says California is prime territory for expanding its Elk Grove Unified model because school districts here are desperate for new revenue sources. Copyright 2010 Capital Public Radio. To see more, visit http://www.capradio.org.