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April 17, 2014

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National companies cash in with charters where the kids learn at home

Gathered by the pool at a Las Vegas community center, the parents and students swapped horror stories.

Fourth - grade bullies in the lunchroom. Overcrowded classrooms. Harried teachers. High school gangs. Kids bored by remedial lessons taught for the benefit of the low-achievers. Also there were home-school families, looking for more structure than they alone could provide their children.

This wasn't a support group for families frustrated by the quality of public education in Clark County. But it might as well have been.

They were all there at the invitation of Nevada Connections Academy, one of the state's newest charter schools, which promised a radically different approach to education : Students learn at home with the help of their parents, instructional materials and a computer supplied by the school, plus online interaction with licensed teachers.

A few days later, at a Henderson ice cream parlor, a representative promoting another charter school, the Nevada Virtual Academy, unpacked a suitcase holding an impressive array of instructional materials. There were dozens of worksheets, textbooks, even a microscope.

At both events, the schools' promoters found eager audiences.

"I've been looking for something like this for a long time," said Jackie Pyles, a substitute teacher for the Clark County School District who attended the Nevada Connections event and has been home-schooling her three sons for six years.

The jury is still out on the effectiveness of so-called distance learning - interactive classes that are accessed by home computer - and virtual schools. But there are plenty of Clark County parents who want their kids out of brick-and-mortar public schools and see virtual charters as safe, viable alternatives. And they are being courted by for-profit companies that see Nevada as their next market.

Nevada's charter schools are supposed to be home-grown efforts, driven by bold parents and educators thinking outside of the box but operating on the same shoestring budget as a conventional public school.

Considering the money charter schools can make for private companies able to recruit the support of parents, it isn't surprising to find competing firms rushing to fill the void.

Case in point: Two out-of-state commercial education companies enlisted parents who put their names on all the necessary paperwork to establish a charter school and win the approval to open the schools. Then the parents hired the companies to operate them.

These charter schools are especially attractive because they offer distance learning that is much more sophisticated than the televised courses of the past, which aired at 4 a.m. on public access channels.

During the past decade , participation in distance learning by K-12 students has soared in the U.S. , according to the Education Commission of the States, a legislative research clearinghouse. As of last year, 38 states offered students some form of online learning, and more than 60 virtual charter schools were operating nationwide.

Clark County is so committed to distance learning that it is possible for students to get high school diplomas without stepping into a classroom, a claim only a handful of districts can make.

The number of students in Nevada enrolled full time in virtual schools is approaching 10 percent and is growing. That fact isn't lost on the two companies that want a piece of the action and are establishing footholds in Nevada - Connections Academy LLC, headquartered in Baltimore, and K12 Inc., a subsidiary of a holding company headquartered in Herndon, Va.

The state Board of Education approved both Nevada Connections Academy and Nevada Virtual Academy (affiliated with K12) in March, despite a negative recommendation from the board's charter schools subcommittee.

Although acknowledging they profit by their involvement in charter schools, representatives of both companies are quick to point out that the local charter school board retains full control over daily operations and can sever ties with the companies at any time.

K12 provides services to more than 35,000 students in 17 states, including the 280 enrolled in Nevada Virtual Academy. Five teachers assigned to the Clark County students go to work each day at the Las Vegas office, the base of operations for online classes.

K12 - which itself is majority owned by Knowledge Universe, an online education holding company co-founded by financier and philanthropist Michael Milken - had revenue of $117 million for the 2006 fiscal year and paid its chief executive $733,486 in salary and bonuses.

Less is known about the finances of Connections Academy, launched in 2001 by Sylvan Ventures, which also operates tutoring centers and online learning programs. Connections Academy provides services to about 9,000 students in 14 states. In 2004 the company was sold to Apollo Management LP, which is part of the consortium bidding for Harrah's Entertainment.

Nevada Connections Academy has an enrollment just shy of 450 students in grades four through 12, with the majority in Clark County. The school's seven teachers work out of their homes rather than the academy's offices in Reno.

Both of the new academies are competing against existing charter schools, including one virtual program already operating in Clark County.

"They're the big-box chains, we're the mom-and-pop store," said Craig Butz, executive director of Odyssey Charter School, which won School Board sponsorship in 1999 and has 1,400 students in grades one through 12. Enrollment at the distance education school is down slightly this year, for which he blames the two new academies.

"We're having to compete against corporations, which is really frustrating," he said.

The Clark County School District's own Virtual High School also can't match the private companies when it comes to advertising, Principal Essington Wade said.

"We're talking about more creative ways to get our name out there," Wade said. "We seem to be something of a secret."

Butz disputes the companies' claims that they set up shop in Nevada only after being urged to do so by local families.

"They recruit the board, they get the charter approved - how much more involved can they be?" Butz said.

Both academies use licensed teachers to monitor students' work, which is completed with the help of online materials and traditional textbooks. Both organize field trips and optional get-togethers for their classes.

Company spokesman Jeff Kwitowski said K12 is being paid $5,200 per student at Nevada Virtual Academy, which is the same as the state's per-pupil funding. Direct instruction, including teacher salaries, accounts for 80 percent of the budget, he said.

A spokeswoman for Nevada Connections Academy was unable to provide information on its costs.

It remains to be seen how profitable it is for K12 and Connections to be in the charter school business in Nevada. The two new virtual schools will have to file financial statements no later than July showing how much money was received from public and private sources, and how it was spent.

They are far from being the only companies interested in doing business in Nevada. The state Education Department has four applications pending for additional virtual charter schools for the 2008-09 academic year, all of which would use outside companies to provide online services.

Cindy Reid, a member of the state Board of Education and chairwoman of the charter schools subcommittee, said the two new virtual charter schools are tantamount to state-subsidized home-school programs, in violation of state law.

Nevada Virtual Academy and Nevada Connections Academy contend they are not home-schooling programs, because they - and not the parents - are ultimately held accountable for the students' performance.

Reid also expressed concern that students would suffer from the lack of social interaction and from not having a teacher to monitor their emotional development, particularly in the lower grades.

"There are fads in education, and to me that's what these virtual schools are," said Reid, who is a teacher.

Rick Gordon, a member of the Nevada Virtual Academy's board of directors, said he understands Reid's concerns. That's why virtual learning isn't the answer for every family, said Gordon, whose daughter is a fourth-grader in the program.

Making it work, he said, requires a "tremendous sacrifice of time, but to us there's no greater investment we can make than in our children's education."

Kathy Christie, vice president of the Education Commission of the States, said time will tell whether virtual education works. "The proof," she said, "will be in the outcomes." All public schools, whether charter, virtual or bricks and mortar, must meet the same state and federal standards of accountability and student performance.

"If schools aren't able to produce the results they promise," Christie said, "that will be the big red flag."

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