'Virtual School' faces fight

Friday, September 2, 2011

Marshall County could have its own "Virtual School" next year, if a suggestion made by Technology Supervisor Suzanne Ingram to the curriculum committee comes to fruition.

Meanwhile, parents who want to take their children out of Marshall County schools and enroll them in Union County's virtual school are facing frustration because online education affects state funding for county school systems.

That's because money is allocated based on enrollment.

The latest information, according to what schools director Roy Dukes said at a committee meeting Monday, is that students who enrolled in a virtual school before July 25 could go. Students who enrolled after that date need permission from their director of schools. According to interim assistant director Dr. Larry Miller, five or six sought permission.

Dukes is not granting this at the moment, for financial reasons.

"We don't want to give permission and lose that BEP money," said Miller.

Basic Education Program money from the state is allotted to the school districts on a per-pupil basis, so if Marshall County students are part of Union County's virtual school, their share of the BEP money goes there, not here. Union County does have to take accountability for the performance of all the students they enroll, Miller pointed out.

There are a lot of unanswered questions, Miller said, including the basic one of how many people are involved. There may be home-schooled children that have never been part of the Marshall County school system that are now going to virtual school.

Miller is trying to get the answer to that, as well as to many questions that the state department of education needs to answer.

"We'll just have to see what they determine," Miller said. Gov. Haslam only signed the law allowing virtual schools on July 1, and Miller agreed this was rather short notice for a school year due to start less than six weeks later.

Short notice or not, the idea took off like wildfire, with Union County signing up 1,000 pupils in three days, according to Ingram.

"I have questions," she told the curriculum committee, "But I have positive feelings."

Ingram pointed out advantages of establishing Marshall County's own virtual school. If home-schooled students could be recruited, they would generate BEP funding without any additional expenditure for facilities. A virtual school could greatly expand course offerings, allowing advanced placement classes and a variety of foreign languages. "Purchasing technology is cheaper that textbooks," Ingram stated.

She knows some things about virtual schools already.

"You have to have a virtual school principal," she said. "The parent is the 'learning coach' for each child."

"We owe it to our students to research this," Randy Perryman agreed.

"It's here," said Ingram, referring to online learning. "You can take a year to get a virtual school set up, or you can sit and do nothing and your students will leave."

Curriculum committee chairman Kristen Gold agreed with her about online learning. She stated this semester, her daughter, enrolled at Middle Tennessee State University, is taking three online courses, and two that require her presence in a classroom.

Gold and Ingram joined in asking all board members to write down every question they could think of about virtual schools, ready to ask Ingram's contact, an official at System Integrations, when he comes to talk to them.

"He's helped me with multiple projects," said Ingram, giving System Integrations a positive recommendation.