Topeka A legislative committee that is charged with helping to craft the next Kansas school finance formula turned to the Lawrence and Spring Hill school districts Thursday to explain the ins and outs of virtual schools.
"The past 13 years, Lawrence Public Schools has served over 6,000 families in countless ways from school districts all across the state," Lawrence superintendent Kyle Hayden told the House K-12 Education Budget Committee. "We partner with school districts to create a viable schooling option for select children who are facing a number of different circumstances."
The Lawrence Virtual School, with more than 1,100 full- and part-time students this year, is the largest public virtual school in the state, followed closely by Spring Hill, which has 867.9 full and part-time students.
According to the Kansas State Department of Education there are 107 virtual schools in Kansas. Of those, 61 accept out-of-district students from anywhere in the state, and the Lawrence and Spring Hill districts are among them.
That has always been one of the controversies about virtual schools because when Lawrence or Spring Hill recruits a virtual student from another district, they also get the state per-pupil funding that goes along with that student. And for many years, they were allowed to count virtual students in their enrollment when calculating their local option budget authority.
During the current school year, the Lawrence district will receive just more than $5.5 million in state funding for its virtual school system.
Under state law, teachers and administrators of virtual school must be licensed in Kansas, and a special unit within the Kansas State Department of Education supervises them. Students in virtual schools also must take the same state assessments in reading, math and other subjects that students in traditional schools take, and the state issues the same kind of annual report cards for virtual schools that it does for other schools.
Virtual schools deliver instruction exclusively online. Usually the classes involve pre-recorded instruction from a teacher, coupled with assignments and tests so students can proceed at their own pace. But they also provide opportunities for one-on-one interaction between students and teachers.
But Keith Wilson, director of Lawrence Virtual School, told the school is more than just a collection of online courses.
"And it's far from being just located on the internet," he said. "We are located in the homes of Kansans, in classrooms throughout Kansas, and in the hearts and minds of our Kansas staff, families, students, host district and KSDE."
He described the student body as ranging "from a child actress on a current hit TV show to future Olympians in training; and from students with medical conditions to Kansas military families stationed all over the world."
Some virtual schools also offer adult education that allows people age 19 and older to return to school and earn a standard high school diploma instead of a GED.
Although virtual schools are open to any student, experts say they typically draw students who are having difficulty in a traditional brick-and-mortar school, including children who have been bullied or who suffer from anxiety or depression disorders. Other families consider it an alternative form of home schooling that allows parents to be more involved in their children's education.
For that reason, virtual schools tend to have lower graduation rates, and their students have lower test scores, than the statewide average.
According to Department of Education figures, the standard four-year graduation rate for virtual schools was just 43 percent in 2016, and the five-year graduation rate was 45 percent. The statewide four-year graduation rate was about 86 percent.
In debates over school finance issues, virtual schools have long been a source of controversy.
During its first 10 years, the Lawrence district's virtual schools were run by a private company, K-12 Inc., which worked on contract with the district, using the company's own teachers, administrators and curriculum.
But after the high school posted a graduation rate of just 26.3 percent, the district decided during the 2013-2014 school year to take over the program and manage the school itself with teachers and administrators employed and supervised directly by the district.
Hayden said after the meeting that since the district took over direct management of the virtual school, the graduation rate has grown considerably. According to KSDE data, the four-year graduation rate at Lawrence's virtual school was 59.1 percent in 2015, compared to the districtwide rate of 85.7 percent.
Committee chairman Rep. Larry Campbell, R-Olathe, said the presentations Thursday were intended only as a briefing for committee members to help them better understand virtual schools so they can be more informed when they start writing the virtual school component of the next finance formula.