Virtual Schools Are Growing – But Are They Any Good?

A Virginia company leading a national movement to replace classrooms with computers faces a backlash of questions on its funding, quality and oversight.

K12 Inc., a Virginia based company, has become the country’s largest provider of full-time public virtual schools. In K12’s virtual schools, lessons are delivered online to a child who studies at home and progresses at their own pace, writes Lyndsey Layton and Emma Brown at the Washington Post.

Virtual education, in the last few years, has evolved into a realistic alternative to traditional public schools for an increasingly wide range of students:

“For many kids, the local school doesn’t work,” said Ronald J. Packard, chief executive and founder of K12.

“And now, technology allows us to give that child a choice. It’s about educational liberty.”

Packard and other education business leaders say that they are harnessing technology to deliver quality education to any child, and it’s a popularly cheap proposition. But not everyone is convinced, as a rising chorus of critics argues that full-time virtual learning doesn’t adequately educate children.

“Kindergarten kids learning in front of a monitor — that’s just wrong,” said Maryelen Calderwood, a school committee member in Greenfield, Mass., who was unsuccessful in her attempt to stop K12 from contracting with her community to create New England’s first virtual public school last year.

“It’s absolutely astounding how people can accept this so easily.”

But people on both sides of the argument agree that the current structure of providing public education is not designed to handle virtual schools, with questions of how do you pay for a school that floats in cyberspace without any geographical connections.

“There’s a total mismatch,” said Chester E. Finn Jr., president of the Thomas B. Fordham Institute, a conservative think tank, who served on K12’s board of directors until 2007.

“We’ve got a 19th-century edifice trying to house a 21st-century system.”

Despite the issues, in the past two years more than a dozen states have passed laws and made it an attractive proposition for education businesses to introduce virtual schools.

More than 250,000 students are currently enrolled in full-time public virtual schools across the country, says Susan Patrick of the International Association for K-12 Online Learning.

Although that’s just a fraction of the country’s 50 million schoolchildren, the numbers are growing fast, Patrick said.

Virginia’s K12 that currently dominates the market, with their customers accounting for almost two out of every five students in full-time online schools.

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