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Thursday, August 6, 2020  Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883
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Online public school casts net in Spokane

Washington Virtual Academy provides home- based students with materials such as textbooks to supplement the school's online curriculum. 
 (The Spokesman-Review)
Washington Virtual Academy provides home- based students with materials such as textbooks to supplement the school's online curriculum. (The Spokesman-Review)

A school district 300 miles from Spokane is looking to enroll local students in its Internet-based public school.

Steilacoom Historical School District, south of Tacoma, launched its Washington Virtual Academy for students up to eighth grade in Spokane on Tuesday, saying it “will be the largest online school available” in the state.

The online school provides home-based students with curriculum and materials, including online resources, textbooks and assessments administered under the supervision of a certificated teacher.

The district is sponsoring the state-funded academy through a partnership with K12 Inc. The for-profit company provides online curricula to virtual schools in 15 states, including Idaho.

“This is the future of schools,” said Rep. Gigi Talcott, R-Tacoma, who was in Spokane for the academy’s launch. “The way we learn has changed. … Students are living with technology every day.”

The classes are free for students and funded with state dollars for public education. Similar online schools have been criticized for taking money from traditional schools and giving it to private companies.

Nationally, more students are turning to online courses. According to the National Center for Education Statistics, 36 percent of students used some form of distance education in 2003.

The Steilacoom district started the Internet-based program with its students in 2004, and after two years decided to expand the program statewide. Students enrolled in online courses can communicate by e-mail with teachers. Previously students were required to attend classes or meet with teachers a certain number of hours per week.

With Washington Virtual Academy, students study under the supervision of their parents. But instead of parents and students creating a curriculum with help from a school district home-school cooperative, they use K12 Inc. tools to guide lessons.

The amount of time students actually spend on the computer depends on age. Young students use technology 10 percent of the time, and older students as much as 40 percent.

Students must still take the Washington Assessment of Student Learning and other required state tests. The curriculum is aligned with state standards, said Randall Greenway, chief administrative officer for the school.

“We do everything that is mandated by OSPI (Office of Superintendent of Public Instruction),” Greenway said.

Not everyone is a supporter.

“We really don’t support the use of taxpayer dollars in hiring for-profit companies to deliver instruction,” said Debra Carnes, the communications director for the Washington Education Association, which represents about 80,000 educators statewide. “It is unfortunate that a school district is driven to this extreme, where they are selling these online programs to make money, which points to the bigger issue of the under-funding of our schools.”

Steilacoom would receive the state dollars paid to districts for a full-time equivalent student, or about $4,200 per student. It was unclear how much of that would be paid to K12 Inc. If 50 students who were attending Spokane schools signed up, that means $210,000 fewer dollars for Spokane Public Schools.

Spokane already offers 19 courses to students in grades eight through 12 through the district’s Web-based Spokane Virtual Learning. About 200 local students are enrolled.

The difference between that and what Steilacoom is offering is that the Spokane Virtual Learning curriculum was created by local teachers, and not a private company, said Sharon Johnston, coordinator of virtual learning for Spokane.

K12 Inc. solicited partnerships in Spokane, Johnston said.

“We are not in this for the dollars, but for providing excellent interactive learning,” she said. “Spokane chooses to remain completely public.”

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