Pennsylvania Cyber Charter School opened in 2000, allowing its 505 students to attend school online from their own home. This fall enrollment in 16 cyber charters in the state is expected to have grown beyond last year's 32,000 students. There are four new cyber charters this year, which shows the rapid increase in popularity of the online schools among parents of K-12 children. Mary Neiderberger, writing in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, notes that this growing popularity is far from a local trend — nationally over quarter of a million K-12 students were enrolled in full-time online education last year across the 30 states which have full-time online schools.
"It's being driven by student demand," said Susan Patrick, president and CEO of the online learning association. "Students want the flexibility that online learning gives them."
The popularity, however, has come with a backlash from those who are against the rapid expansion of virtual schools. Critics point to the lack of socialization experience that online students get compared to those who attend brick and mortar schools. And there are also those who say that online schools don't provide the same level of academic advancement for the children involved; just three of the state's 12 cyber charters made Adequate Yearly Progress under NCLB last year. A study by the National Education Policy Center concluded that students in K-12 Inc. programs were falling behind and while over half of public schools in the study made AYP, only just over a quarter of K-12 online schools did.
Proponents of online schools say that this is because there are many short-term kids using the online school system as a temporary escape from problems at their old school. Online schools also take in students who were academically failing at their brick and mortar school.
"I think the reality, in many cases, is that they are temporary solutions," said Alan Lesgold, professor and dean of the School of Education at the University of Pittsburgh. "You are throwing up your hands and maybe your kid is getting bullied at school and you've got a solution on the Internet and a year or two later they are in something else. The shortest escape path is a cyber charter."
Bob Fayfich, executive director of the Pennsylvania Coalition of Public Charter Schools, says that when test scores are broken down for children who stay at an online school for three plus years, then the results are significantly higher.
State Education Secretary Ron Tomalis believes that the future of education lays in a blended solution where students work mostly online but have significant time on-site as well.
"I think the days of old when you go to a school and [are told] âhere's your teacher, here's your textbook and curriculum' are over," Mr. Tomalis said. "I think blended learning will be more the norm in the future. It really individualizes learning. Technology allows us to have a platform that has a large reach."