It's hard times for school districts across the state. But online is the one place where public schools are flourishing.
Changes in Washington state law now allow private companies to operate in this new frontier and claim a share of public school dollars.
The Quillayute Valley School District is located in Forks, an isolated timber town out near the Washington Coast.
Its student population has doubled in size in just a few years. It is the online enrollment that bumped up the headcount. Quillayute Valley administers the online high school called Insight School of Washington.
Patrick Mayberry is an Insight student in Pierce County. He joined to get away from some classroom bullies in this old school and his grades have improved.
“You are able to concentrate better that you can in an actual classroom," said Mayberry as he studied at his home in Orting.
Last year nearly 3,000 online students from across the state studied online through Insight. That’s far more than the 1,100 students who studied in traditional classrooms in Forks.
While the school district has oversight of Insight, the online school is actually owned and operated by a private company.
Public records obtained by KING 5 show that Quillayute schools paid The Apollo Group up to $1.2 million a month to run Insight School.
The money comes from public education dollars that the state pays for each student enrolled in a district.
Last year, the state paid about $7200 per Quillayute student – money that was split between the district and The Apollo Group.
More students mean more money. Since the school can enroll students from anywhere across the state, Insight runs recruiting campaigns with TV ads to draw in new students.
It has paid off for both the district and Apollo, a Phoenix-based company known for its chain of for-profit career colleges.
The increased enrollment gave Quillayute schools a bigger slice of state money to build the new school complex that is currently under construction.
The arrangement also gives a private company like Apollo rare access to Washington public education dollars.
A law passed by the Washington legislature in 2005 allows districts to partner with corporations to develop online school programs.
New school model
There are now 40 districts in the state with online programs. Most partner with corporations to provide the software and expertise for their online programs, but others allow corporations to run the entire program.
At Insight, the corporate partner not only provides software it also hires and pays the teachers.
“Fundamentally, for businesses the bottom line is profit," said education policy expert Dr. Wayne Au from the University of Washington’s Bothell campus.
He’s alarmed by documents obtained by KING 5 that show most of Insight’s teachers last year were non-union part-timers. That results in cheaper labor costs.
The teacher to student ratio is 1:53, one teacher for every 53 online students.
"To see a 1:50 ratio for a class to me sounds almost outrageous. I don't see how a teacher can be a good teacher with that size of class," said Au.
Many Insight students are struggling.
According to state records for the 2009-2010 school year, these are the statistics for Insight students:
- 50% are passing their classes
- 45% dropped out of class
- 7.2% estimated to graduate on time
Insight School responds
Quillayute Valley Schools Superintendent Diana Reaume said that many of Insight’s students are “at-risk” meaning they were struggling in the classroom long before they came to Insight.
She said the district didn’t always do a good job of weeding out students who wouldn’t do well online either.
"Part of (what we have) done is a better job of making sure kids are well matched to the program," said Reaume.
She expects much better scores when the state posts Insight's latest report card in a few months.
The district also has a new corporate partner this year. A company called K12 is now running Insight.
Reaume said the corporate partnership isn't about profits. She said the company's expertise and financial backing have been vital to the six year old program.
'We're still new and we've grown a lot as far as how to make things right to work for kids," said Reaume.
Parents can check out the student performance of most schools here. But it is important to note that some online schools do not separate their online school scores from the rest of the district.