Controversial Virtual Schools Gain Popularity In Wisconsin

The six virtual schools in the state are pitched as alternatives for parents who want a hybrid home-schooling and a traditional classroom.
MILWAUKEE (AP) - Each day, 11-year-old Roberto Fernandez and his brother and sister wake up for school, then head to the dining room of their Mukwonago home for the first lesson of the day. Mom and a computer are teaching it. The children are among about 1,000 Wisconsin public school students who learn by computer at a growing number of charter virtual schools.

Six such schools have popped up in the last two years, attracting students from around the state as an alternative for parents who want something between home-schooling and a traditional classroom.

Roberto gushes about a science project that was part of his 5th grade curriculum.

"I built a water treatment plant out of a soda bottle. It had sand, gravel and activated charcoal to filter the water," he explained during a demonstration of his school curriculum at Milwaukee's Discovery World museum Wednesday. "When the water came out, it was clean. I even drank some. ... We actually have a well, so it's important to know."

The state's open enrollment program allows students to register for schools out of their districts, and about $5,000 in state funding follows each of them to the new district.

Roberto, his brother Dominic, 10, and sister Maria Terese, 5, all learn curriculum from the Wisconsin Virtual Academy with hands-on help from mom Rose and teachers who talk to them by E-mail and phone.

WIVA, with 420 students in kindergarten through seventh grade, is chartered through the Northern Ozaukee School District in partnership with K12 Inc., a private company headed by former U.S. Education Secretary Bill Bennett.

Rose Fernandez called the education "the best we could get anywhere in the country. ... Our children are curious and they're interested in so many things."

At the Wisconsin Connections Academy, a K-8 school which started in September 2002, enrollment doubled this year to nearly 400, said Principal Nichole Schweitzer. The school is a joint venture between the Appleton Area School District and Sylvan Learning Systems.

Unlike voucher schools, the virtual schools are under the supervision of the state Department of Public Instruction and are required to have licensed teachers and to administer standardized tests.

So far, Wisconsin's virtual schools appear to be running well, but the Legislature likely will want to establish stricter rules for the programs, said Deputy State Superintendent of Public Instruction Tony Evers.

"It is important for us to embrace technology and what it can do for kids. It's also important for us to provide assurances for those folks that are paying the bills," Evers said.

Parents say the programs give them flexibility: They can do three science lessons in a day if they want, or skip classes on Wednesday and study on Saturday instead.

Miriam Marting's husband, a physician, works alternating weeks, so the family can spend more time together and even go on vacation, since her 7-year-old son "attends" WIVA.

"We can take the school on the road with us very quickly," said Marting, of Neenah.

But many parents don't have the option: Virtual schools require that a parent or adult be home to administer the lessons.

"This is not for every family. Not every family can afford to have one or more of the parents home with the children every day," acknowledged Schweitzer.

The state's largest teachers union, the Wisconsin Education Association Council, claims parents are really taking the place of teachers--a violation of state law that requires all public school teachers to have a valid teaching license.

WEAC is suing WIVA, the Northern Ozaukee School District and state Superintendent of Public Instruction Elizabeth Burmaster. A previous lawsuit against the Wisconsin Connections Academy was dismissed last year, but WEAC is appealing.

WIVA has nine teachers for 420 students.

Kathy Hennings, who taught in classrooms with walls for more than 30 years, now teaches from her home in Cedarburg, responding to e-mails and calls from students in grades 1-3, talking with parents and reviewing lessons and tests scores that come in through her computer. She has 63 students.

Marting said having a teacher to turn to is one of the perks of the program, along with the accountability and testing.

"It's not like he can just say, 'Oh, I don't feel like doing school today," she said.

At least five districts are contemplating virtual schools for the 2004-05 year, according to the DPI.