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Floundering Virtual Academy feeds Looneys charter school fears

Williamson County Schools Superintendent Dr. Mike Looney’s fears about charter schools entering Williamson County could be partially realized based on the recent poor performance by a statewide online school, Tennessee Virtual Academy. And Looney, who is openly opposed to current proposed charter school legislation, hopes that the trend doesn’t continue.

“If more district money goes toward alternative educational entities, which leads to more overhead costs, the more the district’s funding will be diluted with less academic results in the process,” Looney said.

Approximately 100 students who would otherwise be zoned for WCS are enrolled in the TNVA, which translates to about $800,000 bypassing district hands. The public online school that serves 3,232 students statewide is similar to a charter school in that it operates on public funding and has more bureaucratic autonomy than a traditional public school.

TNVA, based in Union County, Tenn., was conceptualized to provide students and parents with alternatives to education. It opened its cyber doors in August 2011 with hopes of educating students with a rich and challenging curriculum in an alternative setting. Many observers are underwhelmed, however, with its performance to date. A year and a half later, the school holds the lowest place in the state in terms of academic growth.

“TNVA received the lowest scores possible in growth in the state,” said Kelli Gauthier, Tennessee Department of Education director of communications, referring to the schools TVAAS scores for the 2011-12 academic year. TVAAS, or value-added, represents students’ academic growth from year to year. “With regard to the TNVA, we are generally concerned about schools that are not performing well, regardless of format.”

However, TNVA said it is too soon to draw conclusions about the quality of the education it is providing its students.

“We need more time. Some kids tested when they had been in school less than six months. Also, we had mostly transfer students the first year. Give it a couple of more years worth of data to show what we can do,” said TNVA Head of School Josh Williams, who previously served as an administrator in the Union County school district.

When the Tennessee State Legislature passed a bill effective July 2011 giving school districts the option to partner with for-profit companies, Union County Public Schools partnered with K12 Inc., as its curriculum provider, which, according to its 2013 K12 Academic Report, is the largest for-profit provider of online education for Pre-K through high school in the nation.

“It’s a very advanced, robust curriculum,” said Williams. “All teachers are state certified and curriculum is tailored to individual student needs according to performance levels.”

Although some parents and teachers report positive experiences with the curriculum at TNVA, many of its students do not perform well on state standardized tests.

“The curriculum does not meet state standards, which was a mistake at the state level when the curriculum was chosen,” said State Rep. Glenn Casada, District 63. “The students aren’t learning what the state wants them to learn. The good thing about reform is that if it fails, we can correct our mistakes. The state has either shut down schools before or taken control if they are not working.”

Opponents are worried that legislation currently under consideration at the state capitol could force districts to share its funding with charter school upstarts.

“We face the danger of public schools becoming revolving doors,” Looney said earlier this month. “When charters don’t work, students reenter public schools, and it takes more dollars to remediate them when they return.”


Posted on: 3/21/2013


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