Arizona is taking a closer look virtual schools with a raft of measures designed to facilitate access while holding the schools to higher standards and accountability. Senate Bill 1259 seeks to plug the financial leak of paying virtual schools for students who drop out early.
By paying virtual schools for completion instead of enrollment it's hoped that the problem of high dropout rates will be solved indirectly. Another bill, SB 1255, if passed will address the issue of lax proficiency standards, by establishing a board to administer tests which directly measure the students' knowledge of online course material.
Jonathan Butcher, the education director at Goldwater Institute says:
The legislation is the "type of leg-up the virtual world needs to be the most effective," Butcher said.
SB 1463 will require virtual schools to supervise final exams in person. This also addresses the common criticism that there aren't enough safeguards in virtual schools to ensure that students are actually learning the material.
Most of these measures, while seeming to be anti-virtual schools, should only adversely affect the worst schools that are run for quick profit instead of for the benefit of students' education. Well-run online schools should be better off overall thanks to HB 2260 which would increase the per-student funding that online schools receive.
Online schools have undergone a rapid growth spurt over the last few years.
Online schools and districts in Arizona have increased from 14 to 66 since 2009, when the legislature removed caps on the number of online schools in the state. During the 2010-2011 academic year, almost 36,000 students took one or more classes online.
Alongside this growth has been growing criticism about high dropout rates and a lack of progress resulting in online students falling further and further behind more traditionally educated peers. The current raft of legislative measures aims to address some of these problems while increasing funding for the schools that succeed in keeping students in the program and making academic progress.
Currently online schools receive 5% less funding for full-time students than brick and mortar schools, but this will be addressed with SB 1259 putting them both on an even footing.
While issues certainly exist in the fledgling virtual school projects, it appears to be an avenue that States are committed to exploring as the benefits to some demographics are immense.
"We can't forget that [virtual] schools are servicing students that no on else can accommodate," Butcher said. This may include athletes who travel, students who have been bullied and no longer feel comfortable in a traditional classroom, or students homebound by a chronic disease or injury.