Back in 2001, when "cyber-charters" began capturing headlines in the education press, a betting person might have laid even odds on whether this virtual school thing was a phenomenon that would last.
In 2005, the odds have shifted definitively, if recent activity at state legislatures and regional and national policy shops are any indication. As vice president for state relations at Connections Academy, it's my job to keep track of all this — and as of press time, I count at least six bills making their way through various state capitols that would either create or regulate virtual schools, plus a handful of important reports that have been released since last summer. The varying visions of virtual schooling that these represent reveal just how much this field has evolved in four years.
Virtual learning has decreased the high school dropout rate by enabling students to retain day jobs while working toward graduation.
First, Some Definitions
To keep things simple, let's define "virtual schooling" as education in which a student and teacher work together from a distance. While much of their interaction, and the curriculum materials they work with, may be mediated by technology, a virtual school isn't necessarily all online. That being said, there is clearly a continuum ranging from part-time programs that provide students with online classes in AP Calculus or English I, to full-time virtual schools in which a student's entire educational experience is outside the regular classroom. The current collection of bills and reports touches on various points along that spectrum.
This being America, most of the action on education happens at the state level, so it's no shock that virtual learning legislation is in play this spring in various states across the country. By the time you read this, some of these bills may have passed, others will have died, and still others may have morphed into something different altogether. Grouping the bills into categories helps make some sense of them.
Bold Sweeps: In a couple of key states, there's an effort to create expansive virtual school legislation that will last. In Texas, for example, after several years of "electronic course pilots" and plenty of virtual school activity at the district level, legislators will be considering a framework that allows any student in Texas to take advantage of any program, full- or part-time, operating anywhere in the state. If successful, the Texas approach may look and feel a bit like Minnesota's, where legislators created a mechanism for approving and funding both supplementary courses and complete virtual schools serving students statewide.
Mississippi, on the other hand, could go from zero to 60 if the Mississippi Virtual Public School passes as part of Governor Haley Barbour's education omnibus bill. This full-time school would serve students statewide, with some restrictions on the number of returning home-school and private school students that could enroll. The depth and scope of the Mississippi bill has much in common with the model "Virtual Schools Act" approved early this year by the American Legislative Exchange Council, from which school reform-minded state legislators may draw inspiration.
Expanding Charter Choices: For states with solid charter school laws — or the hope of passing such this session — adding a virtual charter component is often the next logical step. For example, Indiana's charter law, passed in 2001, is considered one of the nation's best by the Center for Education Reform, but it contains language that appears to prohibit virtual charter schools along with home-schooling programs and other non-public options. A bill to clean up this language, along with a variety of other charter fixes, is currently under consideration in Indiana.
Meanwhile, in South Carolina, lawmakers are considering a virtual charter school bill at the same time that they are looking for ways to strengthen and expand the state's brick-and-mortar charter schools. Some charter advocates hope that these bills will be combined into one unified and stronger package.
Students in rural or remote areas can augment their school curriculum with online AP offerings and other courses.
Playing Catch-up: Statewide virtual high schools that offer supplementary online courses through local districts are such a familiar part of the landscape now that it's difficult to remember how controversial they were when states like Florida first pioneered them. One major state without such a program, Georgia, is on the fast track to launch one through an initiative by Governor Sonny Perdue. Families and educators hoping for a full-time option may have to count on proposed amendments to the state's charter law that would allow districts to create virtual charter schools to serve their own students only.
Retrofitting: One virtual school front-runner state, Colorado, is grappling this legislative session with how best to manage its plethora of virtual options. Colorado has full-time schools and part-time courses, charters and contracts, tiny districts and mega-districts all involved in the "online learning" arena. With its tradition of local control and its policy of open enrollment — under which any district can approve a virtual school that any student can attend — Colorado has had its share of headlines about virtual school under-performance. But school choice advocates in the state worry that lawmakers may be tempted to over-regulate even the high-quality programs out of existence. A proposal to "tax" full-time programs to pay for state development of supplementary courses is proving particularly contentious.
The Policy Backdrop
In trying to develop virtual school policies that work, lawmakers and educators have at least one new source to turn to. In Keeping Pace with K-12 Online Learning: A Snapshot of State-Level Policy and Practice, Learning Point Associates, through its subsidiary North Central Regional Education Laboratory, examines different but all arguably successful frameworks for virtual learning. The report looks at policies and practices in 11 states (California, Colorado, Florida, Idaho, Illinois, Michigan, Minnesota, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Texas, and Wisconsin) which offer a variety of virtual program types. It also analyzes approaches to issues such as funding, curriculum, teacher qualifications, accountability, special education, equity/access, and the impact of No Child Left Behind, to provide a comparative spectrum for states just jumping into the process. Keeping Pace is available at www.ncrel.org/tech/elearn.htm.
All Part of the Plan?
Much of the momentum building around virtual schooling relies on a "wait and watch" approach which allows for a growing familiarity. With almost half of the 50 states now offering either statewide supplementary online programs, full-time cyber-schools, or both, states considering such options for the first time may be inspired by others' successes (while learning from their mistakes). In Summer 2004, the U.S. Department of Education published a thought provoking white paper called "How Can Virtual Schools Be a Vibrant Part of Meeting the Choice Provisions of the No Child Left Behind Act?" which answered its own question by laying out several models districts could take advantage of. More recently, the department's new National Education Technology Plan trumpets virtual learning in Toward a New Golden Age in Education. Add to this top-down push the ever-growing clamor by parents and students for more educational choices, and it's no surprise that 2005 is shaping up to be a banner year for virtual schooling.
Mickey Revenaugh is vice president for state relations at Connections Academy, which partners with local districts, charter schools, and state departments of education to provide virtual public school services through 11 schools in eight states. Revenaugh previously helped launch the E-rate as part of that program's founding national staff, edited various national education publications, and is a frequent writer on education technology issues.