A bill that would allow Iowa’s two online schools to stay in business has cleared an initial hurdle in the Iowa House. About 700 students are enrolled in the for-profit K-through-12 online academies in Iowa. Amy Williamson is the chief of the school improvement bureau in the Iowa Department of Education and she has been keeping tabs on the two operations since 2012.

“These schools are not substantially different than the achievement we need for schools in the state,” Williamson told legislators yesterday. “They are a lot like the other schools that we see in the state of Iowa.”

Officials in Iowa’s public schools complain they must send the online academy whatever money they’d spend on a student if a resident in their district enrolls in one of the academies. Tom Marek is with the School Administrators of Iowa.

“The competition is real, especially when we see advertisements on TV,” Marek says.

Margaret Buckton is a lobbyist for the state’s largest school districts.

“The Urban Network, in the past, would have preferred that all schools have an opportunity to investigate offering this curricula to their students,” Buckton says.

The Iowa Connections Academy operates under the umbrella of the CAM Community School District in Anita and the Iowa Virtual Academy operates out of the Clayton Ridge School District in Guttenberg. Advocates of the online schools say they’re an alternative for students with special needs.

Jane Eiler and her family live in Ankeny, but her 17-year-old son, Blake, is enrolled in the Iowa Connections Academy. Eiler says Blake has Asperger’s Syndrome and was struggling in school until he enrolled in the online program his freshman year:

“His grades turned around right away. Friday he got inducted into the National Honor Society,” Eiler says. “I’m sure he would have graduated high school, but now he’s going to graduate high school with honors.”

Other advocates say the online schools are a good option for students who need to escape bullies or kids with sensitive medical conditions who endanger their health by going into a classroom full of kids. Critics point to the 30 percent drop-out rate in the online academies and legislators are asking the schools to provide more information about those students.

The state law which allowed the for-profit online academies to set up business in Iowa expires this year, so unless this bill clears the legislature the for-profit schools will have to close. A Department of Education analysis concluded the online classes are taught by licensed teachers and the test scores of students in the online schools are comparable to test scores from students in traditional bricks-and-mortar schools. Some lawmakers question whether all the online students are being tested and whether students are actually putting in the hours.

The bill that would let the online schools stay in business requires better monitoring of students — and requires the online schools to have parent-teacher conferences. That bill is scheduled for debate in the House Education Committee Thursday.