Attending to the Virtual School Hell in Louisiana

Attending to the Virtual School Hell in Louisiana


Danielle Dreilinger, a reporter at Nola.com, has recently written a story about virtual charters in Louisiana that brings home a national story appearing Education Week.

Oregon educator Darcy Bedortha spent 15 months in “virtual-charter hell” teaching for K12, an online education company with a foothold in Louisiana. The company runs the 1,795-student Louisiana Virtual Charter Academy for a nonprofit board and offers 21 free-standing classes through the state’s Course Choice mini-voucher program.

While Danielle’s story is a little short on specifics according to several commenters, it does draw attention to one of the many poorly designed and managed programs John White and LDOE have thrust upon the state as a salvation for high risk students and a “choice” that parents and students need. What is made very clear by Darcy’s story (which I strongly encourage you to read to understand the reality behind the hype about virtual schools and in-line learning) is that many of the Virtual schools promoted by LDOE are not valid choices, not supervised, are designed to drive profit to a few at the expense of many poor and already underserved children in our state and across the nation. Even teachers that want to reach children are unable to because of constraints on their time by the enormous workloads, high student turnover rates, lack of controls and terrible medium. Darcy’s story is powerful but sadly not unique. There is a caveat I would like to add about who is responsible for this slow moving tragedy. The LDOE in our state, specifically John White and his one of TFA run offices are completely culpable and even encouraged the abuse we see through their intentional mismanagement.

When I worked at LDOE I was in charge of collecting data and statistics and calculating student attendance rates, enrollment, etc. One of the issues I tried for more than a year to resolve, and which my counterparts also tried to resolve, was the lack of accountability and attendance data for virtual charters. I and my colleagues discussed how to calculate attendance and how to account for enrollment many times through many different meetings with charter operators and LDOE staff. One person I met and brought this issue up repeatedly with was TFA alum Raphael Gang, acting director of the Parental Options office after TFA alum Jacob Landry was fired in connection with the unfolding sex and bribery scandal at Abramson charter school in New Orleans (and almost immediately hired by LDOE ally Jefferson Parish at a higher salary.) The virtual operators my group discussed this with were amenable to reporting data on attendance to us based on minimum login hours per week or some other metric. They had loads of data on who logged in when, for how long, and what they did while logging in and whether students produced any work. Virtual charters I discussed these challenges with were more than willing to provide specialized data we could use for attendance and to calculate numbers of students, reimbursement, and potential dropout reports that could be used to contact students to encourage them to continue with their studies or formally drop out so we could mark them as dropouts. This would allow us to properly calculate our state’s dropout rate, which is now artificially lowered and disguised by students who enroll for virtual schooling and never log in, never formally withdraw, never produce work and also never graduate. (There are additional ways this dropout rate is artificially lowered, but this is one component. Student’s that are listed as dropouts could potentially be contacted by school districts to re-enroll before they end up causing mischief or falling so far behind in their studies that catching up would be almost impossible.) However when I was there I was never able to get Raphael and those he reported to like Erin Bendily (Jindal’s appointee and true LDOE commander) to agree to any metric by which we could evaluate these programs objectively. After I left I still looked into what was going on with the virtual charter situation. What I found was Parental Options actually told the virtual charters not to exit students that are no longer producing work (simply logging in). I wrote this post about that conversation. They also had not defined a method for determining who was active or inactive or how to calculate an attendance rate.

Yes—this is correct—it was a phone conversation that I had with [name redacted] of Louisiana Connections Academy—I emailed her a copy of Bulletin 741 and referred her to the SIS Guide for Membership definition of active attendance. She verbally expressed concern to me that she had several cases where the students were logging in BUT not producing the work and therefore were circumventing the system and she wanted to drop them and allow other students to enroll. [name redacted] reported to me that the Parental Office folks told her that she could not drop those students.  (quote from former LDOE colleague)

The only reason I can imagine for doing this is artificially lower dropout statistics and to ensure that those running the Connections Academy get as much funding as they can, while sucking as much funding from traditional schools and school districts. While Course Choice Providers are paid from a separate pot of money after a recent string of successful lawsuits challenging the incorporation of funding for them into the MFP (Minimum Foundation Program) formula, the charter Academy’s get funding from MFP, just as any other charter school would. I would recommend the Legislative Auditor’s office, headed by Daryl Purpera, audit the records of the Virtual Charter schools and recommend a more appropriate way to account for attendance and students who are regularly attending and how districts are allocated funding for students. LDOE and John White has chosen not to do this and we can clearly see the results, vast overpayments of tax dollars, unaccounted for dropouts, and uneducated students. One of the many changes John White has tried to make is removing the attendance portion requirement for MFP. John White has stated he does not believe students need to attend school regularly to receive credit for classes and we should embrace all methods of receiving instruction, but such an open ended statement eliminates the need to attend at all, for funding determination purposes.

B. MFP Payments

1. Each parish/city and other local school system, recovery school district school, and LSU and Southern Lab school shall

receive an allocation from the annual Minimum Foundation Program in 12 payments. These payments shall be incorporated into

monthly amounts received from the state for implementation of the Minimum Foundation Program.

C. MFP: Student Membership Definition

1. Definition. For state reporting for public education for the purpose of establishing the base student count for state funding,

each parish/city and other local school system, recovery school district school, and LSU and Southern Lab school shall adhere to the

following.

a. All students included for membership in school shall be identified with the following minimum required identification

elements: state identification number, full legal name, date of birth, sex, race, district and school code, entry date, and grade

placement.

b. For establishing the base student membership count for state funding the following guidelines will be adhered to:

i. no student will be counted more than one time. Students attending more than one school will be counted in

membership only one time;

ii. all students, including special education students, will be included in the base student membership count who meet the

following criteria:

(a).have registered or pre‐registered on or before student count dates designated in the current adopted MFP resolution. (If student

count date(s) falls on a Saturday, report membership on the previous Friday. If student count date(s) falls on a Sunday, report

membership on the following Monday.);

(b).are actively attending school (all current state laws and BESE policies concerning attendance should be carefully followed.

Appropriate documentation [either written or computer documents] such as dates of absences, letters to parents, notification to

Child Welfare and Attendance Officers should be placed in individual permanent records for any students who may have absences

which raise questions about the student’s active attendance.);

John White’s intention to remove an attendance requirement from the MFP formula is great news for Virtual schools and Course Choice providers seeking to receive a maximum reimbursement with a minimum of effort and achievement. This is bad news for students, parents, and Louisiana taxpayers. However, he has not done that yet and for previous years the MFP funding formula still had this requirement and previous funding allocations should be audited. I also urge the MFP taskforce to include an attendance requirement that will ensure students actually do regularly attend (even in virtual/online school settings), students are properly accounted for, and taxpayers are getting their money’s worth.