Denied by state board, Virtual Academy seeks lawmakers’ OK to expand

LITTLE ROCK — Two years ago, the state Department of Education agreed to support legislation that removed the 500 student enrollment cap on the Arkansas Virtual Academy.

The K-8 charter school was at that time the such school capped by legislation. The reason for removing the cap, according to state Education Commissioner Tom Kimbrell, was that so the school could go through the same process as other charter schools that want to expand, which is getting approval from the state Board of Education.

The academy, known as ARVA for short, is an open-enrollment charter school that offers instruction over the Internet to students. It is affiliated with the Virginia-based company K12, which provides most of its software.

ARVA asked the state Board of Education in June 2011 for approval of a plan to expand to 1,500 students. The request was rejected.

Special language in a Department of Education funding bill before a legislative panel this week would once again set a cap on student enrollment for the online school — this time at 5,000. The special language also would qualify Virtual Academy to add grades 9-12.

The language in Senate Bill 233 “completely subverts the entire charter process,” Kimbrell said last week.

“They came for a renewal of their charter and asked for the increase and the state board did not grant it, so here we’re back in another session and we’re going to be treating a charter different than other charters,” he said. “This flies in the face of what we’ve been trying to to do the past several years, trying to improve the process of approving, revoking, renewing and changing enrollment caps for charters.”

Donna Morey, president of the Arkansas Education Association, said the teachers union also opposes the proposal because of its attempt to bypass the state Education Board.

Matt DeCample, spokesman for Gov. Mike Beebe, said the governor has concerns about the financial impact the measure would have on education funding. The state Department of Finance and Administration estimates the additional cost to the state at as much as $28 million.

Sen. Johnny Key, R-Mountain Home, chairman of the Senate Education Committee, said last week that DFA’s estimate “is a worst case scenario,” but added that an amendment would be proposed this week that would limit students who enroll in the Virtual Academy to those already enrolled in a public school.

“So there will be no net added expense,” he said.

“The Virtual Academy has been capped at 500 for for over 10 years,” Key said. “They have gone through every proper channel and have been denied every time. The original limitation was in special language, so I’m trying to help them get an expansion of their cap.”

Along with raising the enrollment cap to 5,000, the special language also says that “in an open-enrollment public charter granted to a virtual school, the school shall be allowed to enroll an eligible student in any grade Kindergarten through grade 12, up to a total school enrollment of 5,000 students.”

Kimbrell said the special language, if approved by the Legislature, would not only set the 5,000-student cap, but also would immediately make the Virtual Academy eligible to add grades 9-12, without the Board of Education’s approval.

The Virtual Academy was founded by the state Department of Education and was funded with federal grants. When the grants expired, the department recruited a nonprofit board to oversee the school and operate it as an open-enrollment charter school.

Kimbrell said another concern he has with SB 233 is that it already has an amendment in it that would remove the Virtual Academy from current average daily membership funding requirements.

Currently, a school district receives $6,267 annually per student from the state. When a student in a public school transfers to an open-enrollment charter school, the state makes a double payment for the first year of the transfer — $6,267 to the school district and the same amount to the charter school. After that, the charter begins receiving the ADM funding.

Under the amended version of SB 233, the state would no longer have to pay the district the $6,267 for an additional year if the student has transferred to an open enrollment charter school that uses “Internet, long distance or virtual technology as the primary method of teaching.”

“Who knows where these students are going to come from, because they could be from anywhere in the state,” the education commissioner said, adding they could come from another district, a private school or from home school.

John Riggs, a former state senator from Little Rock who is on the board of the Arkansas Virtual Academy, said there is currently a waiting list of more than 1,000 students trying to enroll.

He estimated that about two-thirds of the 500 currently enrolled transferred from public schools in the state, with the remaining third coming from private schools or from home schooling.

“I’m absolutely convinced it’s the future of education,” Riggs said, noting test scores for students of the Virtual Academy are routinely at or above the state average in all subjects.

Riggs said a key to the Virtual Academy’s effectiveness is that the student’s curriculum is designed around the student’s learning ability.

“To me, it’s extremely exciting,” he said.

The House last week gave final approval to House Bill 1528 by Rep. Mark Biviano, R-Searcy, which would authorize the state education commissioner to appoint five to 11 Education Department employees to a panel that would review and decide on charter school applications and renewals. A decision by the panel could be appealed to the state Board of Education, which now approves or disapproves charter school applications.

Beebe signed the bill into law as Act 509.