A pioneering Pierce County school district and a leading online education company have decided to end a partnership that began in 2006.
The Steilacoom School District and Virginia-based K12 Inc., which operates the Washington Virtual Academy (WAVA), will part ways when the current contract between the two entities ends June 30.
Together, the public school district and the publicly traded company laid some of the groundwork for early online education in the state.
The severing of their relationship comes in the wake of state funding cuts to online education programs that affect school districts across the state.
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Last year, the Legislature cut funding to online programs by an average of 15 percent per student.
The closure of Steilacoom’s K12 program will mean WAVA families interested in online public education for their kids will have to seek those services elsewhere. The Steilacoom School Board has authorized layoff notices for up to 43.5 full-time equivalent WAVA teachers.
Steilacoom Superintendent William Fritz said contracts prevent the district from hiring WAVA teachers into its six traditional schools for one year.
He said WAVA’s Steilacoom program this year enrolls the full-time equivalent of about 1,350 students. Of that number, he said, only about 25 live in Steilacoom. The rest are from school districts around the state.
K12 also operates programs through the Omak and Monroe school districts, and Fritz said Steilacoom’s WAVA families should have already received a letter inviting them to enroll in those programs.
“They would still get the same education, using the same curriculum, it just wouldn’t be through our district,” Fritz said.
Fritz said the district and the company have had a good working relationship over the years. But he said K12 wanted contract changes that the district was not comfortable with.
Specifically, he said, K12 wanted to eliminate a $1.5 million escrow account that the school district wanted to keep. The account held money that the district felt would protect it from liability in the event of a future audit, Fritz said. Steilacoom’s K12 program, along with online programs run by the Federal Way and Quillayute Valley school districts, ran into problems with the state in 2008 after a state audit questioned whether the programs were correctly documenting student enrollment.
K12 spokesman Jeff Kwitowski said the demand for an escrow account in Steilacoom was an issue in the decision to end the contract.
“We felt K12 could meet any liabilities, if needed, and that the escrow account would not be needed,” he said.
But he said that behind that argument there’s a bigger issue.
“The biggest issue is funding cuts that make it extremely challenging for all districts,” Kwitowski said. “That’s the No. 1 issue.”
K12 and programs it operates under other names currently serve about 70 percent of the online students in the state, according to the Digital Learning Department. In the 2010-11 school year, 18,649 students took at least one online course, according to the department.
Former state representative Gigi Talcott of Tacoma, coordinator for Washington Families For Online Learning, said state funding cuts aimed at online programs have proven painful. She said school districts now get about $4,200 per student in state funding for online students – about $1,000 less per pupil than they get in basic education and materials funding for traditional students.
“That’s not enough to run a high-quality program,” she said. She said online schools don’t need money for buildings, buses or food service. But she said her per-pupil figures don’t include those costs. She said online schools spend the same as traditional schools to pay certificated teachers and support staffs, and to buy teaching materials.
“Those costs are the same,” she said.
Online schools also say they have higher technology costs for software, technical support and other costs that go with operating a program that runs on technology.