Online learning fuels Oneida’s continued, massive growth

MALAD — Idaho’s fastest growing school district isn’t located in an area of booming population growth, such as Meridian or Boise.

Rather, the rural and remote Oneida School District topped Idaho’s statewide district-growth comparisons for the second year in row. Since 2017, Oneida has grown faster than East Idaho’s four largest and growing school districts — Bonneville, Pocatello-Chubbuck, Idaho Falls and Jefferson County — combined.

Fueled by its online learning program, the district this year grew by 67 percent, adding nearly 1,000 students to its roster. Statewide, K-12 enrollment grew by nearly 5,100 students since last year.

Oneida is headquartered in Malad, a sleepy East Idaho town of only 2,000 people near the Utah border.

“We were shocked,” Oneida Superintendent Rich Moore said.

Oneida partners with for-profit digital curriculum providers to enroll hundreds of additional students from cities as far away as Coeur d’Alene, Twin Falls and Payette.

The increase in enrollment comes with millions in state funding. Idaho’s attendance-based funding model allows districts and charter schools to receive a full measure of funds for online learners, even though these students don’t typically enter brick-and-mortar schools.

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Much of the money goes to for-profit curriculum providers. So far this school year, Oneida has shelled out $3 million for outside services.

And those services come under scrutiny when the online students perform well below their brick-and-mortar peers on standardized tests.

Moore acknowledges his digital learning program “has it’s challenges” but asks, “where might these students be without the resources we are providing for them?”

How virtual learning works

Students enroll in virtual schools through school districts and charter schools that have partnered with digital curriculum providers.

Once enrolled, kids gain access to certified Idaho teachers who provide instruction and grade assignments remotely, via the internet. Parents are supposed to help and keep their children on task.

Like brick-and-mortar schools, online schools report attendance to the state and receive a commensurate measure of funding to cover program costs.

The Idaho Public Charter School Commission governs 11 of Idaho’s 17 virtual schools. The commission’s schools account for 73 percent of virtual enrollment in Idaho, or about 4,400 students, with school districts — predominately Oneida — enrolling the rest.

The rise of virtual learning in Oneida

A 2017 Idaho Education News investigation found that Oneida had partnered with Utah-based digital curriculum provider Harmony, boosting its 2016-17 K-8 enrollment by 405 students.

In 2017-18, the district partnered with another Utah-based provider, Tech Trep Academy, to bring in an additional 158 students.

The partnerships brought Onedia’s online enrollment to 563 students, a 37 percent increase over two years. The partnerships raised the district’s annual state funding from $4.7 million in 2013-14 to over $7 million in 2017-18.

Oneida’s quest to serve online students hasn’t stopped.

This school year, the district signed another contract with Idaho-based K-8 digital curriculum provider Overture. The new partnership, along with snowballing enrollment through Tech Trep, has boosted Oneida’s 2018-19 enrollment by an unprecedented 958 kids.

Today, the district’s Idaho Home Learning Academy serves 1,533 K-8 online learners. Oneida’s brick-and-mortar student population hovers around 950 students.

Here’s a breakdown of Oneida’s current online enrollment, per curriculum provider:

  • Tech Trep: 1,027 students
  • Harmony: 376 students
  • Overture: 130 students

The price tag of Oneida’s home learning academy

This year’s enrollment surge will bring Oneida’s state allocation from $7 million to over $11 million.

Much of the money goes to Tech Trep, Harmony and Overture as they provide services from student registration to online coursework.

Onedia pays its online partners according to “unit” pricing broken down by grade. For example, 40 kindergartners comprise a unit. Altogether, Tech Trep and Harmony each charge Oneida a per-unit price of $68,075; Overture charges the district $66,491 per unit.

Because enrollment fluctuates during the school year, it’s hard to say how many tax dollars Oneida’s partners will receive by the end of the school year. So far, however, the district’s expense reports put the number at over $3 million.

Here’s a look at money divvied out to Oneida’s online partners so far this year:

  • Tech Trep: $2.2 million
  • Harmony: $566,732
  • Overture: $209,604

In 2017-18, Harmony received $216,579, and Tech Trep got $87,358, according to Oneida’s online expense reports.

To safeguard against financial losses, Oneida keeps 10 percent of the money drummed up by online services.

Moore insists the partnerships are not a “money maker” for the district, and that extra revenue goes toward things like new textbooks. Yet the district’s fund balance account has steadily increased since Oneida launched its online school.

Here’s a snapshot of Oneida’s savings over the last three years:

  • 2015-16: $879,000
  • 2016-17: $1.2 million
  • 2017-18: $1.4 million

Click here to view copies of contracts between Oneida and Tech Trep, Harmony and Overture.

Outcomes and debate over virtual learning

Oneida’s online students perform well below the state average, according to results of standardized tests, which means most of these learners are not proficient in math and English.

  • On the math portion, 25 percent of Oneida’s online students scored proficient, compared to the statewide rate of 44 percent.
  • In English, 47 percent of these students reached proficiency, falling below the statewide rate of 54 percent.

Critics of digital learning point to similar trends at Idaho’s other online schools. A 2018 EdNews investigation showed that Idaho’s more than 6,000 online learners perform well below their brick-and-morter peers on an array of academic performance indicators, from standardized tests to high school graduation rates.

Meanwhile, partnerships between public schools and for-profit curriculum providers have fueled concerns about proper oversight of online schools.

In 2014, Harmony came under fire in Utah after a state audit showed lax management of distance-learning programs in two charter schools. Both schools eventually severed ties with Harmony, and one local trustee called it a “predatory company,” the Salt Lake Tribune reported.

Moore defended Harmony by pointing to the company’s expansion in other states, including Minnesota and Hawaii.

He said critics of online learning are asking the wrong questions about performance. Rather than focusing on how low online performance affects statewide outcomes, people should consider the added resources online schools bring to homeschoolers, including:

  • Support from certified teachers.
  • Curriculum aligned with state standards.
  • Support teams and special education professionals.
  • Easing the transition a homeschooler might make into a traditional public school.

Moore said the district “might be” getting ahead of itself by growing its online enrollment so quickly.

“But we’ve bridged a gap by giving homeschoolers the support they have needed,” he added.

Idaho Education News data analyst Randy Schrader contributed to this story. 

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