OLYMPIA — Most online programs are losing money.

Six of the 10 top online schools ran in the red last year, according to a state report released last month. The biggest debt was about $527,000 at Spokane Virtual Learning, followed by iQ Academy of Washington run by Evergreen School District, at $494,000.

Insight School Of Washington, one of the biggest and oldest online high schools in the state, was the most profitable, netting $653,000 in 2008. Executive Director Jeff Bush said it takes a certain number of students to break even and most online programs are new.

"The starter costs are substantial," Bush said. Staff, curriculum development and the platforms that make online education possible all come at a cost. "There's an investment into the educational process that nobody realizes."

In order to claim student funding, online schools must meet several requirements, including weekly teacher-student contact and proctoring for exams.

"It's not a direct check that comes to anyone," Bush said.

"I think one of the misconceptions that is relayed to the public is that virtual programs cost less to operate," said Susan Stewart, Head of Schools for the Washington Virtual Academy. At WAVA, the teachers are employed by the school district under the teachers union contract. The students receive several boxes of books, supplies and materials, including microscopes.

WAVA's high school, run by Monroe School District, lost nearly $300,000 in 2008. WAVA's Steilacoom-based elementary- and middle-school program netted $580,00, the second-most profitable online school in the state.

"Our classroom is not only the books and materials we send, but also the infrastructure for curriculum, lessons and the learning management system. That's what makes these programs not as profitable as some of the public schools," she said.

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