Virtual schools, students with IEPs, and Wisconsin open enrollment

Virtual schooling can be an educational choice with particular benefits for some students with disabilities. The recent study "Serving Students with Disabilities in State-level Virtual K-12 Public School Programs" by Eve Müller, Ph.D., published in September 2009 by the National Association of State Directors of Special Education (NASDSE)'s Project Forum, and funded by the U.S. Department of Education's Office of Special Education Programs, surveyed state education agencies nationwide regarding their virtual K-12 public school programs:
Eleven states described one or more benefits associated with serving students with disabilities in virtual K-12 public school programs. These include:
  • accessibility of curriculum for students on long-term suspension or homebound placement;
  • individualized attention;
  • self-pacing of online education;
  • availability of multi-media content and supplemental resources;
  • students' needs for fewer behavioral supports since they are removed from the school building setting—especially students with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), autism, or emotional disturbance (ED); and
  • creation of another placement option for students with disabilities and their families.
The report "Demystifying Special Education in Virtual Charter Schools" by Lauren Morando Rhim and Julie Kowal of Public Impact, published in January 2008 as part of the Primers in Special Education in Charter Schools series funded by the U.S. Department of Education, notes:
as public schools, virtual charter schools are required to abide by all federal education statutes, including the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA), Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973, Title II of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) and the Fourteenth Amendment of the U.S. Constitution....Consequently, [chartering agencies] are responsible for abiding by all special education rules and regulations, including conducting special education student identification and evaluation, developing individual education programs (IEPs) and providing individualized support, curricular modifications and adaptations as well as related services such as occupational, physical and speech therapy.
In Wisconsin, virtual schools are chartered through local education agencies (i.e. school districts); there is no current state-level virtual school program. This means that students who want to enroll in a virtual school but do not live in the school district which charters that virtual school can enroll in that virtual school only by applying for admission through Wisconsin's annual open enrollment process.

The Wisconsin open enrollment application period for the 2010-2011 school year starts today and runs for 2 weeks and 5 days (February 1-February 19, 2010). The open enrollment general information page on the Department of Public Instruction (DPI) web site shows 15 virtual schools (a few of which are new this year) for 2010-2011, chartered through 14 different school districts. Three virtual schools serve K-12, two serve K-8 only, one serves grades 6-8 only, two serve grades 6-12 only, and seven serve grades 9-12 only. Applicants are limited to 3 choices in their open enrollment applications.

An open enrollment application can be denied by the virtual school's school district if the applicant has been referred for a special education evaluation that was not completed prior to the application, or if special education or related services are not available, or if there is no space available in the special education or related services program. (Please note that there are several additional reasons—not covered in this post—as to why an open enrollment application can be denied by a school district that the applicant is seeking to transfer out of or into, which are summarized elsewhere on the DPI's general information page.)

A piece of information that is not publicized to parents is that a student with an IEP cannot be denied open enrollment on the basis of lack of space or services in the special education program if the parent has refused or revoked consent for special education services (DPI January 30, 2009 memo in Microsoft Word, accessed from the DPI web site by following the link to the "Public School Open Enrollment page," to the link titled "Special Education" under the "Information for School Districts" heading, to the link titled "DPI Memo January 2009 - Recent Changes in IDEA Law Affecting Open Enrollment"). Where a parent has refused or revoked consent for special education, "the child's application must be reviewed as an application for regular education."

Since a student's open enrollment application is limited to 3 choices, it would be useful for parents to know how much space and what services are available for the special education needs of their child, so that they can make full use of their limited selections. Unfortunately, this information isn't readily available. This information is not included in either the marketing web sites for the virtual schools or the school district web sites. A query to the DPI elicited the following response:
You can call the virtual charter schools to investigate the programs available at the school.  You can ask to speak with their special education director about your child’s needs.  However, it is important to understand that nothing a school district/virtual charter school/special education director tells you is a promise either of approval or denial and such conversations will not be accepted as part of the record in an open enrollment appeal.
The track record of Wisconsin virtual schools in approving or denying admissions applications for students with disabilities is not monitored by the DPI. School year 2009-10 is the first school year for which school-level information on open enrollment virtual school approvals or denials has been gathered by the DPI, but this information has not yet been compiled or published.

Enrollment (at November 2008) for students with disabilities in Wisconsin virtual schools is at a significantly lower proportion than the proportion of students with disabilities enrolled in Wisconsin public schools statewide (the following table is compiled from data from the DPI web site):

This information does not tell us why enrollment is proportionately lower in Wisconsin virtual schools for students with disabilities. We don't know how many students with disabilities apply for admission to virtual schools, how many are denied admission, and how many are approved but decline to enroll. It would also be useful to know how many denials are made on the grounds of "not enough space" in the special education program or related services (despite the fact that all virtual schools appears to have significantly proportionately lower enrollment by students with disabilities). Improved information will be a critical component of improving access to this educational alternative to students with disabilities who may benefit from this choice.


  1. Concerned with the FactsMay 9, 2010 at 12:27 PM

    I believe the bottom line is that virtual school serve children from all across the State. These children can be typically very remote from district who serves as the authorizer of the virtual charter. A child with a disability who may require services such as OT, PT, Speech & Lanuguage, etc. multiple times per week can not have these services given to them because of the distance and/or significatn cost associated. One aspect of this post you have over looked in the resident district's denial of application because of "financial burden". How many applications are accepted by virtual schools but later denied by the resident district because of undue financial burdens required to support the education of the child at a distance. An IEP is a legal document providing parents authority in how their child's disability is to be met, but one has to remember that a virtual school will not accept an application unless it is positive that they can provide the child all the services required, or else face the lawsuit soon to follow. Likewise, resident districts are not going to spend 3x-45x the amount to support the education of child outside of their district when they can do the job themselves at the local school. So much of this is not about "finding loop-holes" or schools not wanting to serve the needy, it is more about making sure that eveyone involved can deliver what they promise. Lastly, your summation of percentages of virtual school %'s neglects to add a few of the other virtual schools in the State with very high %'s of SPED students, including the RVA out of Medford, WI. The RVA's model of partnering with local school districts through 66.0301 shared services agreements is a model for other to learn from. These agreements exist outside of open enrollment and allow for IEP teams and services to remain in the resident district without extra costing.

  2. Thank you for your comment.

    I had not included school districts with very small total student enrollments in this examination of data. However, the DPI information for the Medford District's Rural Virtual Academy shows a total student enrollment for the 2009-10 school year of 16. The enrollment for students with disabilities for this school year is shown as 0 students/0%, down from 25% (2 students out of 8 total students enrolled) in 2008-09. The only other RVA school with enrollment numbers for 09-10 is the Rice Lake district, with 12.5% enrollment of student with disabilities out of 8 total students enrolled.

    My subsequent post on this issue ( http://eduphilia.blogspot.com/2010/04/virtual-charter-school-admissions-for.html ) analyzes more specific admissions and enrollment data, obtained by open records request from the DPI. It looks only at nonresident district denials (and not at resident district denials for undue financial burden). The denial numbers do not include de facto denials by nonresident school districts that use the non-appealable placement process to assign applicants to brick-and-mortar schools, which I've confirmed occurs as a practice in at least two of the school districts that have higher nominal acceptance percentages.

    The fundamental issue is that school districts that receive public/federal funds must comply with civil rights law. Policies and practices that discriminate against students on account of their disability are a civil rights violation. (That is not to say that there aren't instances in which a virtual school may not be an appropriate setting for a particular student given the specific nature of the student's disabilities, but the problem occurs when that conclusion is drawn using ad hoc, unwritten or inconsistently applied evaluation criteria, or when those standards are applied only to students with disabilities and not to students without disabilities for reasons not related to the school's fundamental educational purpose.) It's the responsibility of local education agencies and the state education agency to ensure that virtual school admissions and retention policies and practices do not unlawfully discriminate against students on account of their disability, but the lack of oversight and guidance is cause for concern and enables an environment in which discrimination can occur.

  3. Virtual school recognizes the tremendous demands and stress that students can experience throughout their high school lives.