Attorney General’s Office to review law on online schools, but may not issue opinion
The state Attorney General’s Office is reviewing the legality of online schools set to open this fall under the auspices of two Iowa school districts, although it is unclear whether the office will issue a formal opinion on the matter.
The state Department of Education has OK’d the internet-only schools, which are actively marketing their classes across the state and would receive thousands of state dollars for each student they enroll.
“Part of the department’s role is to adapt to the learning needs of the children in this state,” department spokeswoman Staci Hupp said. “We understand and support that online learning is the right choice for some families.”
But some state lawmakers have questioned the schools’ legality and suggested they could pose serious problems for students and school districts.
“We have strong reason to believe that what the two districts are proposing is illegal,” said Sen. Herman Quirmbach, D-Ames. “I also foresee this kind of situation leading to a war between rural school districts.”
Districts with online programs might “raid” students from other districts, setting off a “completely counterproductive” conflict, he said. Students, too, may be hurt by the lack of in-person instruction by Iowa-licensed teachers.
Based on those concerns, Sen. Thomas Courtney, D-Burlington, late last week asked Attorney General Tom Miller to issue an opinion on whether the schools passed legal muster.
In his letter to Miller, Courtney questioned whether the online schools are allowed under “Dillon’s Rule,” which forbids school districts from taking an action unless specifically allowed to do so by law, and another law barring districts from using “telecommunications” as the “exclusive means” for providing basic courses.
A spokesman for the attorney general on Wednesday confirmed the office was examining the issue, but said he could not predict whether it would offer a formal opinion.
“We’re researching it and we haven’t decided yet whether we’re going to issue and AG opinion,” spokesman Geoff Greenwood said. “We may, we may not. First we must look at the law, and that’s what we’re doing now.”
Rules governing attorney general opinions allow the office to decline to issue an opinion for several reasons, including if the issue is the subject of pending legislation. Lawmakers currently are considering a massive education-reform package sponsored by Gov. Terry Branstad that includes greater freedom for online schools.
(Quirmbach, the Senate Education Committee chairman, said language liberalizing internet-only education would be removed from the Senate version of the bill.)
The Department of Education, meanwhile, reviewed and provided guidance on the online programs being implemented by the CAM (Cumberland, Anita and Massena) and Clayton Ridge school districts, and is confident they meet all legal requirements, Hupp said.
“It’s clear that the superintendents of those districts have demonstrated that they understand the law and intend to comply with the requirements by combining online with traditional materials and instruction,” she said.
The department also will be closely monitoring the online programs in the coming year, Hupp said, and is prepared to cut back state funding if they don’t deliver as promised.
The online schools will be operated by the private, for-profit education companies Connections Academy and K12 Inc. in partnership with the CAM and Clayton Ridge districts. The companies, based in Maryland and Virginia, will receive about 97 percent of the $5,883 in state funding provided for each student they enroll, with the districts receiving the rest.
Under Iowa’s open enrollment laws, the online schools may register students from across the state. Both Connections Academy and K12 Inc. are marketing the schools to families statewide with advertising and informational meetings, and emphasizing a March 1 deadline for open-enrollment applications.
The issue has been examined in depth in recent days by the Des Moines Register’s editorial board, which has questioned not only the legality of the internet-only schools and also the quality of instruction that might be offered by for-profit, out-of-state companies in an online-only environment.