“Carroll County has definitely pulled the rug out from [under] everyone,” said Cherie Nielsen, a parent leader of the Virginia chapter of Public School Options, an advocate for nontraditional public schools. “We are scrambling.”
The School Board in the southern Virginia county voted in mid-April to discontinue the contract, citing administrative and liability concerns. But families around the state did not find out about the change until late last week, when they received an e-mail from the Virginia Virtual Academy.
Jeff Kwitowski, a spokesman for K12 Inc., the Herndon-based company that operates the school, said the decision also came as a surprise to the company. “We are aggressively looking for a new partnership” to keep the school open, he said.
Taxpayer-supported, privately operated virtual schools have been receiving increased public scrutiny, including criticism of their performance and their funding arrangements.
Last year, a K12 shareholder filed a class-action suit alleging that the company had made false statements about students’ academic performance. The company agreed to a $6.75 million settlement this spring.
About 275,000 students nationwide are enrolled in full-time, publicly funded virtual schools, and enrollment has been growing about 30 percent a year, according to Susan Patrick of the International Association for K-12 Online Learning, a trade association.
Virginia offers online courses through the state’s Department of Education, and many districts, including the Fairfax County school system, are creating virtual schools available to their own students.
But the Virginia Virtual Academy, which opened in 2009, was the first attempt to offer a full-time program to students statewide. A second statewide program opened in 2012 and serves about 130 students through a partnership between K12 and King and Queen County. Another statewide school was briefly available through the school system in Buena Vista City, near Lynchburg, but the contract was not continued.
Developing such programs often proves difficult as online communities of students and teachers try to take root in school systems that have long operated brick-and-mortar schools at local taxpayer expense and with local school board control.
Some states have created statewide school districts to oversee virtual schools, but Virginia’s constitution gives local governments jurisdiction over public education. So K12 must offer its online curriculum through local school districts.
The partnership with rural Carroll County had a distinct financial advantage for the for-profit company. Carroll County receives more in per-pupil state aid than most districts, because of a formula that favors poorer districts, and all of the virtual academy’s students are counted as Carroll students, regardless of where they live.