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.

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10 thoughts on “Attending to the Virtual School Hell in Louisiana

  1. Would you please comment on the state of KIPP Charter Schools in NOLA? It has been over a year since I visited, and I would like firsthand information on where KIPP stands. I watched a Cspan interview last night that gave KIPP a tremendous amount of credit for rebuilding the school system throughout the city and I thought that was a bit over stated.

    1. That is clearly a vast overstatement of their importance. That being said, I often hear positive things about those schools, but also that they are not a solution for all children and parents. They have strict policies on attendence, discipline and parental involvement and participation that are not always possible or practical for many of the most at risk youth. They are a viable option for parents and children from poor backgrounds that are motivated to work hard and capacity to put in extra time. They are not a good solution for the most at risk youth, kids that come from the poorest backgrounds and more dysfunctional and broken homes.

  2. My children have attended LA Connections Academy for 4 years now and we love it! Cannot praise it enough! My oldest student just graduated and is in college. She is way ahead of her local counterparts here in Franklin Parish. We have never communication issues with the staff, they have ALL been easy to get a hold of and quick to help resolve any issues our children have had. As far as attendance, I personally have no issue with someone seeing that no work has been submitted for days just attendance has been marked. (we have not had that issue but I understand some try it) We have been reminded as Learning Coaches of the need to show work as well as mark attendance. As far as cheating, there is a strict Honor Code and I promise you they check! Do you think kids in a brick and mortar school don’t occasionally turn to Google for an answer and the teacher miss it? Yeah, that happens more often than not in the public system here. While online school is not the answer for everyone, it has its place but instead of blaming the school, how about we put the blame where it lies, with the parents. The parents are the ones who enroll their kids then fail to do their part then get mad when they kid does poorly. Seriously? So many people think they can just turn their kid loose like they do at a “normal” school and things will be fine. I raised my children, I did not send them to school for a teacher to do it and if more people actually parented their kids the entire system would be vastly different! You cannot and should not expect a school to do what you are not willing to do yourself! As a 4 year family of this school, I can PROMISE you it is the best school my children have ever attended! They are coming out prepared for college (something the local school fails at miserably) and also have a strong ability to self-lead! The person who wrote this has their opinion and can voice it however do not take it as fact because I have 2 more year in the school before my youngest graduates and I can tell you we will never go back to the brick and mortar schools!

  3. I agree with you on this. We are in our second year at Louisiana Virtual Charter Academy. My son is in 2nd grade and he is doing awesome! It absolutely takes a parent’s involvement to produce successful students. This is not an option for parents that do not want to participate in their child’s education. We have a great relationship with out teachers, and they are always available to help when we struggle. We have primary lessons for an hour at a time and if we need extra help we have small group sessions for 30 min to an hour. Our zoned B&M school was A+ rated and provided no services for children with anxiety/bipolar. Having him in a calm home environment with one on one education and support has changed his life. His academics and self esteem have soared because he is not contending with fitting in and desperately trying to control his emotions that were in a constant state of trigger due to social pressures, mean kids, and teachers with no time to help. I feel if you think this type of learning is a free ride then you will only be robbing your child of what they could achieve. I am sure some parents try to cheat the system. But they are the ones failing their child. Not the school. All of the resources are available to ensure your child succeeds in LAVCA school system. Parental involvement is crucial to success in a virtual school.

    1. Sounds awesome and like a good solution for you. I’ve heard some positive stories. The virtual school employee actually wanted to do the right thing, but the state wouldn’t let them.

  4. I am also a mom of a k12 student through a la charter school. There are far too many parents who take their children out of traditional public schools and then do not do their part in insuring the kid’s success by being actively involved. Unfortunately this type of parent probably wasn’t very involved with their education to start with. It is tragic, but most of those kids, unless they are extrodinary and highly self motivated will do the bare minimum (if that much) that it takes to scrape by. As for the attempting to cheat the system, in addition to what was previously stated by others, it is also required to do yearly state mandated testing. It is easy for them to see if both child and parent are doing their duties. Also they have an 80% pass policy that if is not met they will not maintain their status as being enrolled. This is a wonderful program for many family types, not just “troubled kids”. As a traveling family that goes all over the country, this remarkable program is a perfect choice.

  5. So I thought enrolling my son who is autistic in a home school program would be great. Because he was bullied a lot last year and it was miserable for him. So prior to class starting I started calling three weeks in advance to be sure. His accommodation were in place and that his IEP old be followed. I was lied too by Mrs. McDonald th a team my son would continue to be self contained just as he was in regular school and I had nothing to worry about. I emailed over ten teachers and administration and it was all in vain. Two days into class starting her and Mrs. Green her boss called to tell me my son would have to be put in regular classes on grade level. What are you kidding me. He is a special needs child who has been self contained. None of that mattered he IEP didn’t matter. They do not follow the educational law and rules. All special needs parents run away from these people. Staff horrible and they have garbage in charge of the special needs department. They should have a message that states if your child is special needs. Do not apply to Louisiana virtual acafemy. We will not accommodate them

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