We received the Open Enrollment numbers for this year and they provide much grist for thought. My first reaction is prompted by the fact that 158 MMSD students have open enrolled in the McFarland School District. Since we have to send about $6,800 per student to districts that receive our open enrollers, this means that we’ll be cutting a (perhaps figurative) check in excess of $1,000,000 to the McFarland School District.
Since last year, McFarland has operated a virtual school. This year, according to Gayle Worland’s article in last Sunday’s State Journal, the virtual school has enrolled 813 students, and a grand total of 5 of them live in McFarland.
Actually, it is overly generous to say that McFarland “operates” the virtual school, known as Wisconsin Virtual Academy. More accurately, McFarland has contracted with a publicly-traded corporation, K12, Inc., to operate the charter school, through another organization called Four Lakes Education.
Some percentage of the 158 MMSD students now taking classes in or through McFarland are enrolled in the virtual charter school, but I don’t know the precise number. I called the McFarland school district today to ask about this, but nobody answered the phone number I tried.
I did spend a little time looking at the financial statements K12, Inc. has filed with the Securities and Exchange Commission. For the year ending June 30, 2010, the corporation had total instructional costs and services of about $222,000,000, and total enrollment of 66,811 students. This means that we send about $6,800 per student to McFarland to compensate the district for a virtual school education that costs about $3,300 to provide. That’s a pretty sweet deal for someone, but I don’t know the details of the arrangement between McFarland and K12. Somehow, I’m guessing, K12 comes out a little better on the deal.
How is the Wisconsin Virtual Academy able to provide an education for such a dramatically lower cost than we can? Well, it helps if you don’t have facilities, or social workers, or school psychologists, or nurses. It also helps if you can economize on your labor costs. K12 recently acquired KC Distance Learning, which also operates virtual charter schools in Wisconsin. KC Distance Learning is currently advertising for Wisconsin-Certified On-Line Teachers. The corporation is looking to hire these teachers for anywhere between 2 to 30 hours a week, depending on workload. The pay? A princely $12.00 per hour. As far as I can tell, no benefits are included.
This works out to a maximum of $360 per week. The good news is that if you worked the maximum 30 hours a week every week of the year – took no time off whatsoever – and had a school-age child, your income would still be sufficiently low to qualify that child for free lunch under the federal free and reduced lunch program (except you better not have your child enrolled in the Wisconsin Virtual Academy, because they don’t offer lunch — free, reduced, or anything else.)
This parsimony when it comes to paying teachers pays off for K12’s bottom line. The corporation did sufficiently well to pay its CEO, Ronald J. Packard, $1,686,932 in 2009, according to the corporation’s last proxy statement. It would only take one of KC Distance Learning’s teachers ninety years of full-time employment to earn the same.
It’s time to list my caveats here. I’m not against on-line learning. I think it can be a terrific addition to a regular school curriculum, and it’s a direction that the Madison School District needs to pursue more aggressively.
I also don’t mean to be critical of the McFarland School District, since I don’t know what it’s rationale was for its push into virtual schools, and I also am not aware of the terms of its agreement with K12.
I’m not even that critical of K12, Inc. Corporations exist to sniff out potentially profitable niches in our economy and K12 seems to have done this successfully. There’s no more reason to be offended at this than there is to pass a moral judgment on gravity or the laws of geometry.
Finally, I recognize that virtual schools can be the best alternative for some small number of students with particular characteristics or needs.
But this doesn’t mean I have to be a fan of virtual schools. I have what amounts to a romantic conception of our public schools. I think they are probably the best institution we have developed for fostering a genuine sense of community among neighbors. We’re not doing so well on income distribution these days. But in a public school, it doesn’t matter how much a student’s parents earn, at least from an institutional perspective. Everyone’s kids learn together, with each other and from each other. Our commitment to equality of opportunity, however tenuous, finds its most prominent manifestation in our public schools. It is frequently messy and the reality invariably falls short of the promise, but the idea of the public school system is genuinely ennobling.
Virtual schools, where students never have to change out of their pajamas and never have to come face-to-face with a fellow student, are inimical to this ideal. They may be the least-worst alternative for some students, but that doesn’t mean I have to like them
Also, aren’t folks a little creeped out by an arrangement whereby we sub-contact our schools to private corporations that make tidy profits by, among other economies, paying their teachers dirt wages? Is there any reason to think anything other than that is a troubling development, regardless of how nifty the corporation’s on-line offerings might appear to be? Whatever we think of it, we’re sending a lot of our Madison property tax dollars directly to K12, Inc.’s bottom line. It’s kind of a stimulus program in reverse.