Are Some States Having Second Thoughts on Online Schools?

Although the popularity of virtual schools continues to grow, some education advocates in states that were early adopters of online education are now beginning to re-think their commitments. The Chicago Tribune is reporting that even among those who consider themselves ardent advocates of digital learning, questions are being asked about the unexpectedly low quality of some of the most popular online schools.

Currently, a moratorium on new virtual schools is in place in Maine, New Jersey and North Carolina due in part to sub-par results produced by online schools already operating in the state. In addition, concerns have been expressed over the high rate of turnover at virtual academies compared to traditional schools, as well as worries that funding formulas used to allocate money to virtual schools put brick and mortar district schools at a disadvantage.

After an investigation, the Pennsylvania auditor general released a report that concluded the funding formula used in the state overpays online schools by more than $105 million a year. At the same time, questions have already been raised in Tennessee about whether their recent entry into distance education was a worthwhile investment after the first set of scores out of the Tennessee Virtual Academy proved to be, in the words of the state education commissioner, "unacceptable."

While some states like Michigan and Louisiana haven't put the brakes on their expansion of online learning, in Florida, the operator of the Florida Virtual Academy – K12, Inc. – is being investigated for maintaining unacceptably high class sizes and hiring uncertified teachers.

But the anger and skepticism elsewhere is striking, in part because some of it comes from people who have ardently supported opening the public school system to competition.

"There's a sense that is a lot more mainstream now and we need to take a closer look at it," said Michael Horn, an advocate of digital learning at Innosight Institute, a think tank focused on education policy. "I don't think we need to put the brakes on completely, but we need tweaks to accountability models, which will slow growth."

Online schools, which came to prominence about the same time as the school choice movement started gaining adherents, were initially envisioned as a way for students in rural areas to get access to regular education without having to commute long distances. Later, distance learning advocates also thought that it would be a good solution for children who traveled frequently or for those who come from families that relocate often. More recently, online education has been touted as something that could help any student who didn't function well within the rigid confines of a regular school or who would benefit from the individual customization of their curriculum.

Enrollment in online-only schools, most of which are set up as charters, has jumped 30 percent in each of the last few years. At least 250,000 students take all their classes online, including physical education, and 1.8 million take at least one course online, according to the International Association for K-12 Online Learning, which represents the industry.

The results however, have varied, and recent studies that compare how students enrolled in online schools perform against those who attend regular schools have produced some alarming results.

Almost every cyber-school in Ohio ranked below average on student academic growth in preliminary report published by the state last week. A Stanford study last year found cyber-students in Pennsylvania made "significantly smaller gains in reading and math" than peers in traditional public schools. And Tennessee's first virtual school was slapped with the lowest possible score for student growth in recently released state rankings, putting it in the bottom 11 percent of schools.

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