Competition increasing in online education options

'I envision that every school district in the state of Kansas could have a virtual school'

Ben Knight, of Lawrence, goes online with his laptop. Knight is a high school senior living in Lawrence but taking online classes at iQ Academy Kansas, a virtual school in the Manhattan-Ogden school district. At left is Knight's mother, Cathy. About 2,000 Kansas students are enrolled in virtual schools.

On the surface, Lawrence resident Ben Knight, 17, is like any other high school senior.

He has spent first through 11th grades in public schools, and last year he finished his junior year at Free State High School.

But instead of returning for his senior year this fall, Knight is technically enrolled in the Manhattan-Ogden school district, in its virtual school, iQ Academy Kansas.

He wanted a fast track to graduate in December, but he also wanted to work at his own pace. He missed the Lawrence Virtual School’s enrollment deadline.

“I was driven by college. I really wanted to start college. I want to finish (high school) early, and it gives me that much more time,” Knight said.

A friend of the family referred him to the Manhattan-Ogden program, which also had two open houses in the Lawrence area.

Like 2,000 other Kansas students, Knight is now enrolled in a virtual school, where he completes homework and learns from his teachers via the Internet.

The Lawrence Virtual School is the largest in the state and has accounted for the district’s overall growth the last four years. But with more districts starting virtual schools, the added competition – like Manhattan enrolling about 17 Lawrence area students – district leaders expect an impact on the Lawrence program’s growth.

Brooke Blanck, director of iQ Academy Kansas for Manhattan, said she has worked with Gary Lewis, principal of the Lawrence Virtual School, and other leaders in the state on virtual school issues. The Manhattan-Ogden district wanted to provide the program to meet the demand for online classes at the high school level.

The program has 240 Kansas students enrolled.

“I think people are having the opportunity to make a choice about what educational program they want to use,” Blanck said.

Virtual schools really only have one school boundary: the state line. The Lawrence Virtual School’s largest number of students comes from Johnson and Sedgwick counties. Douglas County is third, Lewis said.

The school serves 722 students in kindergarten through eighth grade, and 93 students use the high school program.

Lewis and Lawrence Superintendent Randy Weseman said they expect more districts to begin offering some type of virtual program, as Manhattan and Leavenworth recently have.

“I think it’s great because it’s giving our families in Kansas more options,” Lewis said.

Competition will also improve quality, he said.

Weseman said they are seeing more sophisticated marketing campaigns from virtual schools.

Kansas Education Commissioner Alexa Posny said the aggressive recruiting seems to come from the companies that work with school districts on providing some districts with curriculum and management.

“The groups have always pretty much rallied together, and it really becomes an issue for the superintendents to kind of work together and say, we’re not after getting your kids,” she said.

For Lawrence, its curriculum provider K12 Curriculum handles the marketing, and iQ Academy for Manhattan is modeled after a program in Wisconsin.

Under the Kansas funding formula, districts do receive state aid per pupil for enrolling virtual students, which would seem to put more at stake among districts.

But Weseman said virtual school growth in Lawrence “doesn’t change our budget too much,” and called it a self-sustaining program.

Lawrence Deputy Superintendent Bruce Passman said the funding also helps offset cost for the high school summer school courses at the virtual school.

“By the time you outfit those virtual school students with what they need, it’s a program that’s paying for itself,” Weseman said.

Lewis also expected more districts to form virtual programs but he said they should do so to help meet more student needs, not to generate revenue.

“I don’t know if it will ever happen,” he said, “but to some degree I envision that every school district in the state of Kansas could have a virtual school.”