A surging number of Minnesota public school districts and charters are launching new online programs this fall with a similar pitch: flexibility, innovative instruction and engaging learning experiences for students of all ages.

And as the list of online options swells, so does the challenge for students and families trying to figure out which schools are best prepared to deliver on their equally big promises.

"I think the phenomenon in Minnesota is exciting and worrisome at the same time," said C. Candace Chou, a University of St. Thomas professor who specializes in online learning and technology.

The surge in online learning opportunities could be a boon for many students who discovered last year that they could thrive outside the traditional classroom, Chou said. But with so much variation in the offerings and quality of virtual schools, she said the success of students and some of these brand-new schools will vary.

Adding to the complexity is the growing but tough-to-track presence of for-profit online learning companies, which multiplied during the pandemic and have swarmed schools in Minnesota and across the country as they attempt to build new virtual academies from scratch.

Particularly for smaller school districts, worried about losing students and lacking the staff or resources to build an online program in-house, these ready-built platforms can provide a critical lifeline. But they also come with significant costs and some risk; the Minnesota Department of Education does not vet outside online providers, and there are few resources available to school leaders to assess whether a company's track record elsewhere lives up to its claims.

Meanwhile, some districts are contemplating relationships with a newer kind of for-profit company, focused primarily on attracting traditional home-school families with financial incentives and promises of freedom from some public-school oversight. It's a model that has drawn scrutiny in other states and already contributed to the collapse of one large online program in Minnesota.

"It is a wide-open and exploratory space right now," said Jennifer Mueller, dean of the College of Education and Learning Design at St. Cloud State University.

Big education business

Milaca High School Principal Damian Patnode was bombarded last year with e-mails and phone calls from online learning companies, each one trying to persuade him to spend thousands of dollars on software or digital curriculum.

The salespeople knew school administrators like Patnode, working in a small, central Minnesota district, don't have the resources to quickly create programs from scratch for students who want to keep learning online. Meanwhile, bigger school districts were already building online programs and advertising them, looking to pull in virtual students from every corner of the state and the tens of thousands — or millions — of dollars in state funding that follow them.

"If we're not looking at options like this, we're going to continue to lose students," Patnode said.

The online learning companies offer software, lessons and sometimes even the teachers. Milaca opted to stick with Edgenuity, a company it had worked with in the past, spending $3,500 for access to online curriculum. But still, the calls and messages from other companies keep coming, usually about 10 per week.

"They are kind of capitalizing on the market right now, and I get it," Patnode said.

Online learning was a big business before the pandemic, and it has exploded over the past year. Across the country, schools linked with for-profit education management organizations are leading the boom, according to a report issued this spring by researchers at the University of Colorado Boulder's National Education Policy Center.

In some states, online learning companies have become major lobbying powers at state legislatures, spending millions to push for policies that support and expand virtual schools. That's not the situation yet in Minnesota, but at least two big names in the industry, Pearson and Stride Inc., have registered lobbyists in St. Paul.

School administrators fielding sales pitches have few places to turn if they want to learn more before buying. There's little in the way of academic, data-driven studies on the success of the programs. That's particularly true for virtual elementary school programs, which barely existed before the pandemic.

"School districts are out there on their own, and they're making decisions based on the last marketing person they spoke to," said Alex Molnar, a virtual learning researcher and one of the authors of the University of Colorado study.

Jeff Plaman, the lone staff member in the Minnesota Department of Education's Online Learning Office, said the state does not accept or reject outside vendors for online programs. Districts applying to start a new online school have to list those companies on their application but do not have to notify the state if they make changes later.

Districts also have to show that their program will follow the same curriculum requirements in place for traditional schools, but the state doesn't have much ability to spot-check to ensure the lessons are equally rigorous.

"The district has ultimate responsibility to implement a curriculum that's in line with their standards," Plaman said.

A midyear breakdown

When Amanda Dahlberg decided to home-school her two children two years ago, she went looking for an online school that might help guide her efforts. She found what seemed like a perfect match in a school district 200 miles from her north metro community of Nowthen: the Worthington school district's VIBE (Virtual Instruction By Excellence) program. It was one of the largest programs in Minnesota, with an enrollment of about 700 students, mostly from outside Worthington.

Harmony, the Utah-based company Worthington hired to run the program, offered families reimbursements of up to $800 per student for just about anything they needed for their education. People bought laptops, musical instruments and memberships to the Minnesota Zoo. (Home-school families not enrolled in a public online program are eligible for up to $79 in state reimbursement for textbooks and standardized tests, plus $63 for approved health services.)

Harmony also hired home-school parents to run weekly sessions where families could drop off their kids for social time and instruction in art, music or other subjects.

Unlike some online programs that require students to log in daily for live instruction, students enrolled in the Harmony program only had to turn in occasional worksheets and watch videos. Dahlberg said that worked for home-school families like hers that wanted some help to shape lesson plans — but not a constant connection with or oversight from the public school system.

"For me and many families, it was the financial kickback we got to go toward the curriculum, that's what it was about," she said. "We could submit the paperwork and do all the things that made Harmony happy, but we weren't tied to the district."

But not everyone was satisfied. In December 2018, a parent complained to the state, and officials started investigating. Among their findings: just one teacher in Worthington's program held a valid Minnesota teaching license. And there were other problems, like the wide-open rules about what constituted "education materials" for which families could seek reimbursement with public funds.

After more than a year of talks between the district and the state, the relationship between Worthington and Harmony ended abruptly in January 2020. The district and the company canceled their contract, under which Worthington paid Harmony $2,575 to $4,765 for each student enrolled. Students had to find new schools midyear; parents were left confused and frustrated.

Doug Brands, principal of the Worthington VIBE online school, said the district became aware of some "red flags" after the first parent complaint and others that followed. District leaders also knew about the teacher licensing issue at the start of the school year, but Brands said the problem was the state's teacher-licensing agency moving too slowly.

"There can be a lot of blame game played from different angles, and some of it was the timeliness — and some of those licenses didn't get approved," he said.

Lessons learned

The Worthington program has turned into a cautionary tale of sorts. Administrators in several other districts said state officials told them they should staff their programs with their own teachers.

The Big Lake school district, northwest of the metro, is expanding its online high school program to all grade levels and will use curriculum purchased from Edgenuity. Though the district could use Edgenuity teachers, Keri Neubauer, Big Lake Online's principal, said school leaders are wary of going in that direction in case kids return to in-person classes.

"We don't want these random people out there educating and supporting our kids," she said. "We want that connection to Big Lake Schools."

But with the pandemic's trajectory still uncertain, and school enrollment projections in flux, some districts are still struggling to iron out the details of their programs.

In July, several districts still weren't ready to tell families whether teachers in their online programs would be working exclusively online or if they'd be splitting their days between in-person and virtual students. Some weren't sure if they'd need to combine grade levels, or how often students and teachers would connect for live instruction.

Meanwhile, a late-breaking policy change from the state will allow more districts to bypass most of the application process and open online programs this fall, as long as they pledge to meet application deadlines during the school year.

Worthington is rebuilding its program, using another company new to Minnesota called Venture Upward. On the surface, the program looks similar to Harmony, offering a $1,000 "Venture Reward" for supplies and weekly student meetups in some areas. But finding more specifics about the program isn't easy; neither Venture Upward's website nor its corporate filings — in Idaho and Wyoming — list anyone affiliated with the company. Calls and messages sent to Venture Upward for comment were not returned.

Brands, the Worthington principal, said his district is working to make sure it uses only district-hired teachers and offers more teacher-student interaction than it did with Harmony.

"We are working together with Venture to have quality candidates who understand the mission of online learning and how that works," he said.

And families, it appears, are very interested. By late July, the district's Venture Upward program had hit capacity at 375 enrolled students. Nearly 200 more were on a waiting list.