State board denies virtual charter's expansion | Arkansas Blog

Monday, June 13, 2011

State board denies virtual charter's expansion

Posted By on Mon, Jun 13, 2011 at 11:32 AM

The state Board of Education today denied the Arkansas Virtual Academy's request to grow from 500 to 1,500 students.

The school receives state funding to provide education support by computer to home-schooled students. It's an affiliate of the for-profit K12 corporation founded by former Education Secretary Bill Bennett. It receives per pupil funding equivalent to the amount provided students in conventional school districts, though it has no physical schools for the children, who are drawn statewide.

A number of parents with children in the program spoke in support of the school as did Rep. Justin Harris, who'd tried unsuccessfully to legislatively mandate an increase in the school's size.

But Board members weren't happy with the depth of budget numbers and preferred to wait for an interim legislative study. The board voted 7-1 against the expansion.

More on the jump.

Board member, Dr. Ben Mays, raised questions about the virtual school budget figures — particularly 15 percent for administration when it's about 5 percent in conventional public schools. He said he hadn't been convinced of the efficiency of the virtual academy operation and said the budget didn't tell board members enough. He said, for example, the figures lacked numbers of teachers and salaries paid from the money the state provides. The leader of the school Scott Sides, justified higher administrative costs in part on account of things "pushed out" to the school by K12.

(Here's the real question: How much profit does K12 make off each Arkansas virtual student?)

Board member Sam Ledbetter said the school made a compelling case for the need for virtual schools for children with special needs, such as medical conditions. But he said, the school was attracting all types of students and, despite "great promise," he wasn't "quite ready to make the commitment you're asking us to make." Board member Brenda Gullett said test results hadn't been that impressive. She also noted how profitable it must be for K12 to be the provider of most of the virtual school's software and was told the school was not required to take bids from competing suppliers. She questioned how a public charter school could get a waiver from bidding requirements. Jerry Jackson, the board chair, said the wavier had been granted. "I find that personally astonishing," Gullett said.

Board member John Riggs, a former senator, said the board of the virtual academy was in the process of seeking better terms on a new contract after the current one expires next year. He said the school would negotiate with K12 and look at other providers of educational software and support. But until then, the 15 percent payment of money to K12 will continue.

Mays said that convinced him that the board should delay approving an expansion until the legislature had completed an interim study of the expansion of the school that was authorized when Harris' bill was defeated. Riggs argued the school needed approval for more students to have bargaining clout in negotiating new contracts.

Why triple the numbers? Why not go from 500 to 1,000, Board chair Naccaman Williams asked. Jerry Jones, the Acxiom vice president who leads the board of Virtual Academy, said the school had been held at 500 for years, but he said the school would be fine with an expansion short of what's been requested. Any increase would be a benefit, Jones said.

Ledbetter made the motion to deny the request and Brenda Gullett seconded him. Seven board members voted for the motion. The chairman didn't vote. My webcast was indistinct, but I believe Vicki Saviers of Little Rock was the sole vote against denial.

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