An upcoming hearing hosted by the Texas Senate Education Committee will focus on the growth of virtual education in the state. Specifically, senators will be looking for ideas on improving the quality of online classes offered in Texas schools and on how to improve academic outcomes for students in underperforming programs.
Students who wish to take advantage of online learning opportunities have two possibilities open to them right now. They can enroll in a supplemental program, which would allow them to take some classes online while getting the bulk of their learning in a traditional school, or leave the traditional school altogether and attend a virtual school full time.
Texas students and families have responded well to the online format over the last few years. According to Raise Your Hand Texas, an organization that tracks online enrollment in the state, the number of students taking at least one online course has nearly doubled in the past 6 years. The majority of those students – 17,000 as of 2010-2011 academic year – are supplementing their education with online courses, while only 6,000 were full-time virtual learners. All virtual education providers are overseen by the Texas Virtual School Network, which itself is overseen by the State Education Agency.
Supporters of online education offer familiar reasons why virtual schools are an important component of a well-rounded education system. They provide flexibility in terms of timing and location, and allow advanced students and students who are struggling to work at their own pace. Students who wish to enroll in classes that are not offered in their neighborhood schools can take classes online without having to resort to a lengthy commute.
Finally, virtual they point to virtual schools as a more cost-effective form of education than traditional brick and mortar schools. In a March 2012 report on virtual education, the Texas Public Policy Foundation stated, “Increasing access to online learning in this state could prove to be a substantial cost saver, and will without a doubt improve choice and flexibility in the design of a student’s education.”
Arguments of the online education skeptics are also familiar. While those who are leery of school choice policies continue to argue that virtual schools are largely privately run but publicly funded, most think that the main problem with online learning is that it doesn’t provide the same quality of education as is available in a traditional classroom.
Raise Your Hand Texas’s own study of virtual schools was released earlier this month. It concludes that because the cost per student in virtual schools can’t be determined from public reports, it’s hard to tell if they’re cost effective or not. Because full-time virtual schools struggle to maintain an academically acceptable accountability rating, the study argues the legislature should be cautious in expanding funding and access to virtual schools.