Virtual Schools of the Future


Online education kindergarten through 12th grade is a small but growing slice of the school choice movement across the US. A big player in virtual (computerized) instructional curriculum is K12 Inc. (NYSE: LRN), based in Virginia, a publicly traded for-profit firm that operates in all 50 states and 85 countries.

According to Kelly Krug of Fair Oaks (suburb of Sacramento), the key to the company’s online learning approach is its mastery-based curriculum. Thus, students do not move forward until they have mastered skills demonstrated in lessons and assessments, said Krug, a K12 middle school teacher and teacher trainer.

Krug’s youngest son, Sam, 15, has been attending the California Virtual Academy (CAVA) at Sutter, a tuition-free and virtual public charter school that serves students from Butte, Colusa, Placer, Sacramento, Sutter, Yolo, Yuba counties, since the first grade. He is one of 687 students who attended the CAVA at Sutter in the 2011-12 year, up from 130 students enrolled in 2006-2007, according to the California Dept. of Education.

There were 33 full-time virtual schools serving 18,350 students in California in 2011-12 out of a national total of 196,378 pupils, according to the National Education Policy Center at the Univ. of Colorado in Boulder. To put the California data in context, the state’s over-all number of public school students was 6.2 million in 2009-10.

In the Sacramento region, there are 17 virtual schools that offer students a “minimum of 30 percent of instruction online,” according to the California Dept. of Education. The CDE’s 30 percent instructional threshold includes two other categories of virtual education.

In one category, a private firm provides individual courses to a school district or home school. In the Elk Grove Unified School District (suburb of Sacramento), for example, there are 320 students enrolled in a “credit recovery program,” according to spokesperson Elizabeth Graswich.

“Credit recovery typically implies the student took the course and failed or got no credit either for the entire course or,” she said, “perhaps, for one semester of a year-long course.”

There is also a hybrid model of virtual schooling. It blends online instruction with face-to-face learning between students and teachers in a traditional classroom environment.

Miriam Lyons, with 25 years of classroom teaching experience, is one of three teachers with the Elk Grove Unified School District’s Virtual Academy, which opened three years ago. This virtual academy has 66 students, grades K-8, who use K12 Inc. curriculum and also have real-time, face-to-face instruction with tutoring weekly.

“We just finished up an algebra workshop,” said Lyons. “You can’t really learn that subject online.”

Gary Miron is an education professor at Western Michigan University and policy fellow at the National Education Policy Center at the Univ. of Colorado in Boulder. “To be successful (in virtual school learning),” he said, “you have to have a supportive home environment, be able to self-regulate, have meta-cognitive skills and be self-disciplined.”

Asked repeatedly for its per student funding from the state, K12 declined to answer. Where is the government oversight?

According to the California Dept. of Education School Fiscal Services Division, “Whether or not a school is a virtual school determines the rules for how they calculate average daily attendance, but it is not relevant to how we fund districts or charter schools, so we don’t collect that data. We also have not tried to derive that information (by identifying virtual schools and then seeing how much money they receive, for example).

K12 curriculum “costs about 45% of the per student revenue limit that we get from the state,” Graswich said. With full-time virtual schools, firms such as K12 get the full dollar amount of funding for each student enrolled, according to Miron.

The math is simple. If K12 receives an average of $5,000 of state tax-supported funding per student each year and enrolls 14,000 California students (CAVA’s current enrollment), the annual sum is $7 million.

So what is the problem? K12 is accountable not to the taxpayer but to its shareholders, said Miron.

According to a K12 source who spoke anonymously, its 13 CAVAs (founded in 2002) have grown, on average, at a rate of 20% annually since 2008 in California. Meanwhile, the NEPC’s first-ever report on full-time virtual schools nationwide is set for release in April.

Seth Sandronsky lives and writes in Sacramento. Email

From The Progressive Populist, April 15, 2013

Blog | Current Issue | Back Issues | Essays | Links

About the Progressive Populist | How to Subscribe | How to Contact Us

Copyright © 2013 The Progressive Populist
PO Box 819, Manchaca TX 78652