Changes in funding could change online offerings in Kansas
Hutchinson Virtual school opportunities for Kansas students blending traditional classroom learning with online classes could nearly vanish in a couple of years.
State aid to districts where some students take all their classes through a virtual school or program will climb next school year and rise still higher the following year. However, the state funding base for calculating aid for part-time students will plunge from $4,045 in 2015-16 to $1,700 in 2016-17.
"It is indeed a mystery," Jessica Noble, education program consultant in the Kansas State Department of Education, of the funding levels written into legislation this year, told The Hutchinson News.
The drop-off will result in "few to no" virtual schools offering classes to students enrolling on a part-time basis, Noble predicted. It wouldn't be affordable, she said.
It's the students who will suffer, said Mark Templin, principal of Andover eCademy, with Andover USD 385.
Noble said the Legislature was influenced by Legislative Post Audit's performance audit on K-12 virtual schools. The audit was released in January 2015.
The audit looked at three distinct models: virtual schools for full-time K-12 curriculum; the part-time K-12 courses; and adult diploma completion programs.
Across the state, Noble said, there are over 100 virtual schools or programs that fit into one or more of those categories. Thousands of students are participating in some form of virtual education.
The study concluded that full-time K-12 virtual schools received $400 to $1,500 less per student in state aid than it actually cost. That prompted the hike in aid to $5,000 per full-time equivalent student in 2015-16, and $5,600 in 2016-17. Those sums replaced a formula.
To increase accountability in the adult diploma completion programs, the state will pay $933 per one-hour credit course successfully completed.
What the audit focused on when it looked at students in K-12 schools taking some online courses was an unusual arrangement involving the Andover eCademy and the Catholic Diocese of Wichita. That led to the dramatic funding change for part-time participants.
Some students attending Catholic schools take online classes through Andover eCademy. Andover does not charge the schools or students. The state aid goes to Andover.
"We have some part-time students that are only with us 40 minutes a day," Templin said. The cost to Andover is limited because the students have counselors and teachers on their end, he said. The automated classes can be remedial or classes for students in a middle school without a higher-level math or science teacher, he said.
Part-time K-12 schools received an estimated $2,500 more per full-time-equivalent student than it cost to operate, the audit stated, studying the Andover example.
"It wasn't like we did this in secret," Templin said of the arrangement.
"We don't want to be overfunded and have everybody mad at us. We just had no other option," Templin said.
Dropping the base aid for the part-time student calculation to $1,700 — a figure that appears in the audit report and also in the legislation — would be appropriate for providing the limited services to the Catholic school students, Templin said.
However, making that figure apply to all part-time students in virtual programs across the state will prove damaging for at least some programs - including Andover eCademy.
They looked at one particular part-time program that costs less, and applied the financial projection across the board, Templin said.
Some students take nearly all their classes through a virtual school - but one. It may be art or band or physical education, but by taking at least one class in a brick-and-mortar school, the student becomes eligible to participate in school sports.
"In some cases, that's kind of the best thing that we do," Templin said. It is a blended approach and it helps those students eventually earn a diploma.
Their virtual time is not calculated using the $5,000 base, but using what is the base for part-time: $4,045 next year and $1,700 the following year. If half their classes are virtual, they won't generate half of $5,000, but half of $4,045 - or half of $1,700 in 2016-17.
"You will spend more than $1,700 on a kid like that," Templin said.
Darin Headrick, superintendent of Kiowa County USD 422, said the majority of students in its affiliated virtual school are in the part-time category. He's concerned about the funding drop.
Students taking virtual classes do not fit into a mold, Headrick said. It can be a student experiencing health problems and spending time in a hospital or at home. Or it could be a young single mother juggling a baby and a job and taking online classes.
Headrick is proud of the graduation rate. On average, over 50 kids a year graduate with the help of online classes.
"Kids are able to get a high school diploma, and that's the whole point," Headrick said.
Kansas Connections Academy is based at Elkhart USD 218, but is part of a national virtual education program. It anticipates it will serve about 600 students across Kansas during 2015-16, according to Kansas Connections Academy Principal Jerald Rash.
All of them will be full-time-equivalent students, not students taking a blended program. The school districts and virtual programs targeting full-time students stand to benefit with the higher virtual state aid rates.
Haven USD 312 had 51 full-time-equivalent students in its virtual program last year, and just one high school student who was part-time, according to Kevin Stucky, director of curriculum and technology for USD 312.
"A lot of our students are local students," Stucky said. He noted other virtual school options available.
"It's a lot more competitive than it was even five years ago," Stucky said. He said virtual schools are advertising on television, radio and in newspapers.
There is a scramble for full-time students, though, not part-time students.
"I hate taking away an opportunity that is good for a student," said Andover eCademy's Templin. But he said they won't go out and encourage part-time enrollment.
For the coming school year, students in the Catholic Diocese of Wichita will continue to take virtual classes through Andover eCademy.
"Our kids are citizens of the state of Kansas," said Bob Voboril, superintendent of Catholic schools for the diocese. "Our kids are just being treated the same as anybody else."
Even after funding drops, said Templin, they "will probably continue that program because I can do that program for $1,700."
The problem will be the more costly part-time students who were "lumped in" for the model used in the audit, he said.
Ultimately, it will be a school board decision, Templin said.
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