A couple of years ago, Macie Zoble and her son were in crisis.
The Lafayette woman had done everything in her power to keep Riley, then a kindergartner, stable enough to simply finish a traditional school day.
To combat his severe type of bipolar disorder — which mimicked attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder and set teachers on edge — the round-cheeked child had been fed high doses of psychotropic drugs, only for Zoble to learn later that he metabolized them too rapidly for them to matter.
He’d been assigned a special learning plan — aimed at keeping students with such difficulties in the classroom — but with an administrator-mandated 10:30 a.m. pickup time, it barely kept him in school at all.
When nothing worked, she pulled him out of school. She quit her job.
“It changed our lives. Completely,” Zoble said, tears running down her face.
Without the online-only public charter school, Zoble said, she would have had to travel far from her home to get Riley, now a second-grader, the services he needs. Instead, she serves as his at-home learning coach while teachers behind a computer screen go over the curriculum.
Situations like Zoble’s illustrate the need for the 1,900-student virtual charter school and others like it across the state, advocates say.
In recent weeks, supporters of online learning have been waging war against a push by some legislators and school districts to cut state money for the virtual outfits, a drive sparked by the argument that the absence of brick-and-mortar school buildings equates to less financial need.
Drawing perhaps the most scrutiny is a bill by Sen. Ryan Gatti, R-Bossier City, that would cut by half the budgets of two virtual charter schools, the Virtual Charter Academy, known as LAVCA, and Louisiana Connections Academy, both headquartered in Baton Rouge.
Other proposals giving advocates pause would require online charters to be more transparent about where their students live and would ban for-profit operators such as K12 Inc., of Virginia, and Connections Education, of Baltimore, the companies behind LAVCA and Connections.
The for-profit ban is on Gov. John Bel Edwards’ legislative agenda, and most of the bills have the backing of the Louisiana School Boards Association, whose executive director says the bills would equalize a funding imbalance.
If passed, they would cripple a segment of a school-choice movement that increasingly finds itself on the defensive as a new governor and his legislative allies seek to undo much of what his charter-friendly, voucher-supporting predecessor, Bobby Jindal, established.
Even if they don’t pass, just broaching the topic with lawmakers has turned a light on the increasingly popular yet controversial virtual-school organizations that have come under fire both locally and nationally.
Many of the bills will receive airings this week in legislative committees.
Though some parents are strong advocates, many school boards have criticized both online and brick-and-mortar charter schools as siphoners of sorely needed funding that otherwise would stay with traditional school districts. Schools that accept students from around the state are especially damaging, critics say, because they leech funding from multiple districts.
At issue is the state’s Minimum Foundation Program formula, the per-pupil school funding mechanism that allocates money to LAVCA and Connections and reduces the amounts local districts receive as a result. While those statewide, online charter schools do get a slightly lower MFP allocation — 90 percent of what districts receive per pupil — critics say the reduction is too slight, considering that those schools don’t have to transport students or pay for building upkeep.
Sizable numbers of students are involved. Since Connections launched in 2011, its 597-student enrollment has ballooned to 2,141. LAVCA has grown from roughly 1,200 students to 1,900 in the same period.
Their growth has triggered counterattacks from school districts, in the form of in-house online programs meant to woo students back as well as lawsuits aimed at cutting off state aid for the statewide charters entirely; the suits are on appeal in the state 1st Circuit Court of Appeal in Baton Rouge.
Gatti’s bill would cut $16.1 million from the two online charters, money that would then be divvied up among the state’s 69 school districts.
Two other bills would require statewide charters to share their students’ residency information so that local districts could be sure the amounts being diverted from their MFP allotments are correct.
“Barring the political rhetoric about the pro-charter and anti-charter debate, the bottom line is it’s about equity and fairness,” said Scott Richard, executive director of the School Boards Association and chairman of Edwards’ transition committee on primary and secondary education.
Charter leaders, however, say that parents’ needs should be placed above what they call a money grab by the school districts.
“These bills are an orchestrated effort led by supporters of the status quo to preserve their own political control of public education at the expense of the students and families who demand choice in public education,” said Caroline Roemer, executive director of the Louisiana Association of Public Charter Schools.
Roemer, in an interview, described Edwards’ legislative agenda — which would ban for-profit charters, limit voucher eligibility to students attending schools graded D and F and stop the state board from overriding A- and B-rated districts’ denials of new charter applications — as a “swinging pendulum” aimed at killing policies enacted during Jindal’s eight-year tenure.
Edwards has said the new charter rules would restore local control and that C-rated schools — which are average, but not failing — shouldn’t be voucher-eligible.
As for the argument that virtual schools don’t need as much money as physical schools do, Connections spends a sizable amount — an estimated $3,200 per student next year — maintaining its online management system, said Melissa Bentley, executive director of Friends of Louisiana Connections Academy’s board.
“That is how the student gets on everyday, sees their teachers, sees their coursework. That is their education,” Bentley said.
While Bentley said cutting the online schools’ budgets in half could mean a reduction in teacher salaries that would threaten Connections’ ability to retain quality instructors, LAVCA might very well have to close, said Christin White-Kaiser, of Westwego, a LAVCA parent and the Louisiana director of PublicSchoolOptions.org, a school choice support group.
White-Kaiser and another parent filed a friend-of-the-court brief in February, urging dismissal of the statewide charter funding lawsuit.
For-profit academic woes
Connections this year budgeted about $1.7 million for largely curriculum-related “management company services,” payable to publishing giant Pearson’s Connections Education. LAVCA will fork over $3.8 million to K12.
Both national for-profit companies, which are tied to more than half of the country’s cyber-schools, came under fire after an October study by three policy and research centers found online learners deficient in their math and reading performances.
For-profit partnerships also have weathered local scrutiny. While they once were a burgeoning part of New Orleans’ charter-rich education landscape, relations between for-profit entites and charter school governing boards have since soured.
Connections, meanwhile, has largely distanced itself from the parent group that bears its name. Math scores at the Louisiana school have mimicked the national trend, so officials are ditching Pearson’s math curriculum and starting anew, Bentley said.
The school also broke ties with the parent firm on everything but curriculum and branding, is hiring a superintendent and is “looking more like a traditional system,” she said.
Math aside, the state awarded Connections a high C last year in overall performance. LAVCA received a D, which was down a letter grade from 2014.
But Zoble and other parents who say they need LAVCA’s flexibility said its governance or grades — which often are affected by students who use the online program to catch up in school — shouldn’t matter as long as it continues to be best choice for their children.
“I would be devastated if they were to take this away,” Zoble said.