Wanted: A few good virtual students 

Charters turn to daytime TV to recruit students

The latest ads running during Live with Regis and Kelly and golf tournaments on KTVB Channel-7 in Boise are selling something free: a public school education.

Idaho Virtual Academy started running TV commercials in April, urging parents to visit the school's Web site to enroll.

"It's basically just trying to let folks know that if they're interested in another school option for their kids, the Virtual Academy is something to check out," said Cody Claver, head of the school. The commercial was created and paid for by the school's parent company, K12 Inc., a Herndon, Va.-based company that trades as LRN on the New York Stock Exchange and reported $95 million in profit last year. "We're trying to hit all the media that people will touch as well as online advertisement."

Idaho now has 31 public charter schools, including the IVA, with more set to open in the fall. That's meant increasing competition to get students in the doors.

Claver said his job running the state's largest virtual school is "kind of like being a superintendent." He's been in this role for five years, but he spent more than 15 years teaching and working as a principal at traditional schools.

Claver said the school has done radio and print ads before but television ads are a first.

Jeff Kwitowski, a K12 spokesman, said the company has done similar spots in other states. He wouldn't disclose the price tag for the ads nor provide BW with a copy. "K12 is available tuition free through online public schools and a state certified teacher will guide your child on the path to success," the ad, as aired on television, declares.

Under Idaho law, public charter schools are required to advertise for the first three years.

"Charter grants of federal money are used to get the charter going, and part of that budget has to go to advertising," explained Diane Demarest, executive director of the Idaho Charter School Network. The goal, she said, is for charter schools to reach out to a diverse population of students and not discriminate.

North Star Charter School in Eagle, for example, has been advertising on radio lately as it finishes building a new school. "Charter schools are pushed in that direction to advertise because they want to have full enrollment and be fiscally sound," said Demarest.

Traditional schools don't have the same responsibility to advertise. But as the choices for public schools grow, Demarest has noticed some public schools breaking that mold by advertising in local newspapers. "Traditional schools are starting to say we need to step up and let people know what we offer, which is exactly the purpose of charter schools as a method of school reform--to help public schools be more responsive to their constituents," she said.

The Idaho Virtual Academy, one of four virtual charter schools now operating in Idaho, has more than 2,400 students in kindergarten to 12th grade. And this year, the 7-year-old academy graduates its first seniors. That means there will be new virtual seats opening up. But that is not the reason behind the TV spots, Claver said.

"It's not to make up for the loss. It's to continually make folks aware that there are other choices for education in the state," he said.

The Idaho Virtual Academy wants to keep growing. Under state law, the school can add an additional 600 students every year. Claver says by next year, he'd like to have some 3,000 students enrolled in this virtual world.

Rep. Shirley Ringo said the IVA's ads gave her pause. The Moscow Democrat recalls seeing the commercials at the same time the Idaho House was debating House Bill 303, which gives incentives to schools that blend traditional and virtual education. Claver said the ads were in "no way, shape or form" tied to the legislation, but Ringo said, she is concerned about the push for more virtual education in Idaho.

"It's a move that makes it easier to put a kid in front of the computer rather than attract a quality teacher in the schools," the retired educator said. "I certainly think that we have legislators that would like to move in the direction of privatizing almost everything. If they're successful, and I really think that House Bill 303 was a move in that direction, then we'll see a lot more in the advertising of school programs."

The bill remained in play during the final day of the legislative session, with the Senate attempting to limit its reach and some House members trying to expand it. At press time, it sat on the governor's desk awaiting a signature or other action.

Advertising public charter schools in Idaho seems new, but it has been around for a while. Melissa McGrath, spokesperson for the Idaho State Department of Education, has noticed public service announcements cropping up mainly in Eastern Idaho.

"It's really not that unusual. Since there are more choices of schools opening up within public education, then there's going to be communication about those schools," McGrath said.

Outside Idaho, advertising charter schools is big business. In Arizona, there are hundreds of public charter schools competing for students. "The charter school movement has grown there," McGrath said. "You'll see huge billboards in Arizona advertising charter schools."

The Idaho Virtual Academy, like all of the state's charter schools, is funded by public dollars. Each school gets discretionary money from the state, which can be used for everything from supplies to, yes, TV time. "They [IVA] get the same amount of money as traditional schools and they are funded by the same formula," explained McGrath.

Public charter schools and traditional schools receive funds based on the average daily attendance. The more students, the more money the school gets.

And, thus, the Idaho Virtual Academy's TV spot, according to Claver, is money well spent.

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