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Back to School

Home- and private-school students who want to take classes on the Web scored a small victory in May when the Colorado Legislature passed a bill allowing a limited number of them to enroll in online public schools.

But for Pam Benigno, the victory was too small. Benigno, who directs the education policy center at the Independence Institute, a conservative think tank in Golden, has been pushing lawmakers to allow all students to be able to enroll in virtual schools since 1998, when the legislature passed a law prohibiting students who aren't already in public schools from making the switch. Lawmakers worried that if online schools suddenly became inundated with non-public-school students, the state's education budget would be tapped dry, because the state is responsible for giving schools a certain amount of money per student ("Reading, Writing and Refrigerator Raids," January 31).

Parents eventually discovered a way around the law: As long as a student is enrolled in a regular public school until October 1, when schools submit their enrollment numbers to the state for funding purposes, he or she is considered a public-school student and can then enroll in a virtual public school on the government's tab. But Benigno and other critics wanted the law to guarantee equality, so she helped persuade state representative Keith King and Senate Majority Leader Bill Thiebaut to try to replace the earlier law with a new one allowing everyone to attend online schools.

After several changes, however, House Bill 1349 ended up limiting the number of home- and private-school students who can enroll in virtual public schools to just 135 per year. The Colorado Department of Education will decide how many slots each of the state's five online schools -- which serve more than 700 students -- will get. (The five schools are the Monte Vista Online Academy, Jeffco Net Academy, the Lester B. Arnold Virtual High School in Adams County, the Vilas Interactive Long Distance Alternative School in Vilas, a small town in southeast Colorado, and the Colorado Virtual Academy, also in Adams County.)

"It's a foot in the door," Benigno says. "But we're strongly considering suing the state, on the basis that it's unconstitutional to discriminate against particular groups of children."

The reason lawmakers gave for setting a limit was the same one they used when they banned non-public-school students from virtual public schools entirely: money. Benigno doesn't understand how legislators can justify the limit, and she points out that home- and private-school students can freely enroll in charter schools, which also get state money.

In the past, schools like the Colorado Virtual Academy, an online charter school that currently serves kids in kindergarten through second grade, would simply turn away students who weren't eligible because of their home- or private-school status; now those schools will track the number of students they reject (it will be up to individual school districts to determine the admission criteria).

"I think there are probably several hundred home- and private-school parents who would be interested in online schools," Benigno says, adding that the bill does offer some good news. "Now that those parents will have to apply to enroll in online schools, we'll have a better idea of just how many families are being discriminated against."

 
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