CASPER — Before the coronavirus pandemic reached Wyoming in March 2020, just over 1,000 students statewide were enrolled in a virtual education program. Three districts had statewide virtual programs — meaning students from anywhere in Wyoming can enroll — and five districts had local options.

In the past year the number of virtual students enrolled grew by more than 300% — to more than 5,400 for the 2020-2021 academic year. The number of districts offering these programs also increased.

For the 2020-2021 school year, four districts offered statewide programming and 10 had their own local offerings.

Those figures were presented to the legislature’s Joint Education Committee on Monday as part of a broad discussion on an array of education-related topics.

While lawmakers took no formal action regarding virtual education Monday, the dramatic increase in participation led lawmakers to question how accurately the programs are funded. Committee members said the issue could eventually warrant a new piece of legislation.

“We’re concerned here that basically we’re paying for a bunch of things that are not real costs,” Co-chair Charlie Scott said. “My recommendation to the state department of education is it would be useful if you guys looked at this and came up with a recommendation, because we might be capable of developing our own recommendation and you may or may not like what we come up with.”

The question is whether virtual programs are less costly, and if so, can the state leverage those savings?

The short answer to both questions is no, according to testimony from experts.

The money Wyoming’s K-12 schools receive from the state is calculated based on the district’s average enrollment, formally called average daily membership, or ADM, explained Wyoming Department of Education chief policy officer Kari Eakins. Because every virtual program in Wyoming is statutorily tied to a brick-and-mortar school, they’re paid for the same way.

Committee members wondered if, because virtual students aren’t contributing to wear and tear on facilities, those programs should receive less money than they currently do.

“As we potentially shift to more and more virtual, what is the equity of funding there?” Rep. Albert Sommers, R-Pinedale, asked.

Answering that question with enough precision to meet requirements in the state constitution would require an outside consultant, committee member Sen. Chris Rothfuss, D-Laramie, added.

But the state has already received a recommendation from the consultant it pays roughly every five years to review the state’s K-12 funding model. That consultant in a 2020 report recommended the state not change how virtual education programs are paid for, according to the legislative service office’s Matt Willmarth.

“One of the biggest misconceptions of virtual schools is they must be cheaper or less expensive to operate. This could not be further from the truth,” said Shannon Siebert, principal of Wyoming Connections Academy — a statewide virtual education program offered by Big Horn County School District 1.

She explained that her program’s costs include a significant technology platform, curriculum, educators, intervention programs and a physical office space.

As for how well these programs educate students, the data is limited.

The state began monitoring test scores of virtual students separately from the whole in 2016, so Wyoming only has a few years’ of information to go off of. Still, there are some trends.

“Generally when it comes to the statewide assessments, virtual students tend to perform below non-virtual students,” Eakins said, although there are some exceptions. Sixth, ninth and tenth-grade virtual students seem to perform better in English language arts than their non-virtual peers, for example.

“Even though the data generally suggests some lower performance by these students, we do know that a lot of students really excel in these virtual education programs and that it is a fabulous option for many of our families, especially some of our ranching communities where they live in a more remote area.”

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