Thousands of students in Washington state enroll in online schools every year, but it’s difficult to figure out who the students are and why they’re opting for online programs instead of attending brick-and-mortar schools.
Data from the state Office of Superintendent of Public Instruction show that almost 10,000 students enrolled in the state’s three biggest online schools in the 2017-18 school year.
Online schools in Washington are funded with state tax dollars and hosted by school districts.
Hosting an online school can give a financial boost to a district, which keeps a percentage of the per-pupil amount. The extra students also increase the district’s enrollment, which allows a property-poor district to receive more in state levy assistance.
The three biggest online schools in Washington are Insight School of Washington, hosted by the Quillayute Valley School District on the Olympic Peninsula; Washington Virtual Academies, hosted by the Omak School District in the Okanogan Valley; and Washington Connections Academy, hosted by the Mary M. Knight School District on the Olympic Peninsula.
The schools are operated by publicly traded, for-profit companies. K12 Inc. operates Insight School, which serves ninth through 12th grades, and Washington Virtual Academies, which serves kindergarten through high school. Pearson Plc, a British textbook and education company, operates Washington Connections Academy, which serves kindergarten through high school.
In interviews with KNKX, students have said one big reason they opted for online school was to escape negative interactions with peers in their previous schools. Some described wanting to have more freedom to set their own hours.
But there’s a growing body of research raising alarms about the performance of online schools.
A new report from the National Education Policy Center said virtual schools have a graduation rate of 50.1 percent, far below the national average of 84 percent for all schools. The Center for Research on Education Outcomes at Stanford University found that “academic benefits from online charter schools are currently the exception rather than the rule.”
Yet the schools continue to attract students. The appeal could partly be a result of the schools’ advertising.
One K12 ad on Facebook says, “Tuition-free, personalized online learning. What if school could come to you? Enrollment is open for the 2019-2020 school year!”
To enroll in an online school, families in Washington fill out a choice transfer form.
For example, a student living in the Tacoma school district can submit a choice transfer form to enroll in the Quillayute Valley School District to attend Insight School of Washington.
Data from OSPI show that Tacoma had the most students who enrolled in the three biggest online schools last year. The Bethel School District ranked second, followed by Seattle, Kent and Spokane.
While it’s not surprising that the state’s two largest school districts, Seattle and Spokane, would have a significant number of students enrolled in online schools, some districts have a disproportionate share of students opting for virtual programs.
Districts that are located near Joint Base Lewis-McChord have a larger share of students enrolled in online schools. Those districts include Bethel, Clover Park and North Thurston.
Bethel School District spokesman Doug Boyles said in a statement that families don't have to give specific reasons on the forms when they choose to pursue a choice transfer. He said it’s hard to know if military families in particular are opting for online schools.
“Some of them are undoubtedly military families, but they don’t have to identify as military on the transfer form,” Boyles said in the statement. “”Less than 10 percent of our population is identified as military or DoD (Department of Defense).”
A spokesman for JBLM said online school enrollment is not something they track, either.
For a district such as Bethel, losing 345 students to online schools outside of the district doesn’t have much of an impact because the district has been experiencing so much growth in recent years. But it can have a bigger impact on districts such as Kent that have seen enrollment shrink.
If a student transfers districts, even virtually, state education funding dollars follow that student into the new district. The loss of funds from the original district may cause it to cut staff.
It’s a similar concern raised by opponents of publicly funded charter schools: When students opt out of a school district in significant numbers, it can create a funding shortfall.