Manitowoc Public Schools are denying all requests for students to enroll in virtual charter schools this summer. If parents make such a request during the state’s open enrollment period in spring, school districts don’t have the option of rejecting enrollment in virtual charter schools. However after that window closes there is an “alternative application procedure” parents can use. And under that procedure Manitowoc Schools is denying all requests for enrollment to virtual charter schools. Business Services Manager Ken Mischler, in an interview with Media Trackers, said that historically Manitowoc students have failed in virtual schools. Mischler stressed that families whose request is rejected by the district can appeal to the State Department of Public Instruction. Mischler was defensive from the moment the interview began and was at times combative.
Mischler also told us that if the district could deny virtual school requests during the open enrollment period, it would. When we asked if that means they won’t entrust parents with their child’s educational choices he said “I’m not going to answer that question.” Mischler said parents choose virtual schools because they don’t have all the information about them.
When asked to explain his assessment that Manitowoc students have failed at virtual schools Mischler repeatedly said “our history.” When pressed, he said most virtual schools students return to Manitowoc public schools because they have failed and are far behind their peers when they return.
Peder Berg, President of the Wisconsin Coalition of Virtual School Families, a statewide grassroots organization formed in 2004 to promote and protect the educational options for Wisconsin students told Media Trackers:
“This is an outrageous abuse of power that shows a callous and malicious distrust of parents,” said Berg. “Children are not vessels for state aid and school districts should not be standing in the way of parents exercising the educational choice guaranteed them by Wisconsin state law. Online public charter schools have been a proven, vital and fundamental part of the Wisconsin educational landscape for more than a decade.”
In a Friday morning news release, WCVSF went further:
Online, or virtual schools, are fully-accredited, locally-chartered public schools that have educated tens of thousands of students in Wisconsin. They employ licensed teachers who educate using cutting-edge curriculum and internet access. Students in these schools take the same state-mandated standardized tests as their peers in traditional public schools. Virtual school graduates from Wisconsin have gone on to become nurses, engineers, lawyers, members of the military, and more. Yet many in the education establishment cling to the bigotry that parents who exercise the option to send their children to these schools have somehow been duped.
The Manitowoc practice concerning virtual charter schools isn’t a new one. Wisconsin Watchdog reported in 2016 that parents in other districts faced similar challenges:
Rose Fernandez, a founder of WCVSF, said parents really have a year-round option to transfer their children to another school. WCVSF was a major proponent of the change in state law that allows the alternative application process.
“If the family has done the work and found a seat and if the new district has an opening, that can happen anytime during the school year now,” Fernandez said. “Unfortunately, many families don’t know that it is an option for them.”
The ability of local districts to veto the transfer has proven in some cases to be a snag however.
“That resident district can veto the wishes of the parents even when they have already found a slot, or even if their child is already attending classes at another public school,” Fernandez said.
She said the superintendent of the Delavan-Darien school district, Robert Crist, denied a family the ability to transfer their children to another district. That family contacted WCVSF, who helped get public attention to the issue on the Charlie Sykes radio show. Eventually, the family was allowed to move their children to a different school.
“But for many families if they get a denial letter like that from a superintendent they will just defer to what they think is the proper ruling and not know they have any other right to appeal it or any other option,” Fernandez said.
Some school districts are more helpful with transfers, especially to virtual schools.
“It’s not just our statewide online schools. But that certainly is an option that families find and that also school districts recommend them particularly for kids that really have fallen through the cracks in the system, when the district is at a loss of what else to do for them. That is a rather common occurrence that a district will say we think you ought to look at an online school.
Mischler says the blanket denial policy does not apply to families seeking transfer to another public school via the alternative application process. Mischler said he didn’t know how many families had been denied virtual school transfers.
Correction: an earlier version of this story incorrectly referenced DPI policy that is not applicable to this issue.