Nearly half (49 percent) of the public school parents who approve of online learning say they’d be comfortable with having their high-school-age kids take most of their high school courses online. This insight comes from the latest edition of the Phi Delta Kappan/Gallup Poll of the Public’s Attitudes Toward the Public Schools.

Those findings heartened some supporters of virtual schooling, but the poll also contained results less welcome to cyberschool advocates. According to the well-respected annual education poll, only about one-third of parents of public-school children say they approve of cyber education—that is, education in which students take classes through the internet instead of in a regular classroom.

For 33 years, the esteemed education journal Phi Delta Kappan—with the assistance of the Gallup polling organization—has been measuring the public’s opinions and attitudes toward the nation’s schools. In this year’s poll, the journal asked respondents two questions about cyber education for the first time.

First, pollsters asked respondents whether they approved or disapproved of students earning high school credits online via the internet without attending a regular school.

Researchers found that 63 percent of respondents identifying themselves as parents with children in public schools said they disapproved, while only 35 percent said they approved. Two percent of respondents said they did not know.

The second question—put only to those who said they approved of cyber education—asked, “Would you be willing or not willing to have a child of yours go through high school taking most courses online over the internet at home instead of attending a regular school?”

Response to this question was evenly split among parents. Forty-nine percent of respondents said they were willing to have their high-school-age children take mostly virtual classes, and 49 percent were unwilling to do so. Again, two percent said they did not know.

Julie Young, executive director of the Florida Virtual School (9-12, enr. 6,500), said these percentages indicate that, while some people approve of the general concept of cyber education, they don’t see it as a good option for their child.

Those are good instincts, she explained.

“Often we see traditional education as a ‘one size fits all’ deal—and we now know that is not true. There are students who are just not succeeding in that model,” she said. “Well, online education is not ‘one size fits all’ either, but it can be provided as an option for those kids [who] may need it.”

Young believes there is still a fear that online learning is being designed to replace traditional education. But the reality of virtual schooling is that it has been designed to enhance traditional education, she said.

Linda Pittenger, director of the Kentucky Virtual High School, agreed. “The significance may lie in … the way the question was worded. The phrase ‘without attending a regular school’ may raise the specter of easy credits with … an unqualified teacher and little, if any, rigor in the curriculum,” she said.

“The question implies that online courses are an alternative to any participation with a traditional school or school system; in many cases, online courses are offered through the traditional school to supplement their offerings. … If the question were asked differently, the responses might have been more positive.”

According to the Phi Delta Kappan/Gallup poll, there also was a marked difference between the way Republicans and Democrats answered the questions. Thirty-three percent of Republican respondents said they approved of students earning high-school credits over the internet, compared with 22 percent of Democrats.

The fact that Republicans traditionally favor school-choice initiatives—such as vouchers—might have something to do with their broader acceptance of virtual schooling for kids, Young said.

In addition, a geographical disparity marked the poll. Fifty-nine percent of respondents in the West—but only 36 percent of those in the East—said they were willing to have their own children take most high school courses online. Considering different needs among geographical regions, these figures make sense to online education officials.

“I think that out west there is a more visible need for distance education,” said Young. “Schools are very spread out in some parts of that area. There is a geographical need, and that can often drive the educational option.”

Overall, Young said she was fairly pleased with the results of the poll.

“Considering we serve half of a percent of Florida, if 35 percent of parents say they approve [of virtual schooling], then I think that’s outstanding,” she said.

But because the poll asked only about students taking all or most of their classes online, it might not have painted a complete picture.

“It does not have to be all or nothing,” Young said. “Cyber-schooling is being positioned as a replacement for traditional education, and it just is not.”

Of last year’s 5,900 students enrolled at the Florida Virtual School, only about 100 were full-time, she said.

“If [pollsters] asked whether you’d consider an online course for your student that was otherwise unavailable at your child’s school, then I think [the figures would show] very widespread acceptance,” Young said.

Links:

33rd Annual Phi Delta Kappan/Gallup Poll of the Public’s Attitudes Toward the Public Schools
http://www.pdkintl.org/kappan/k0109gal.htm

Florida Virtual School
http://www.flvs.net

Kentucky Virtual High School
http://www.kvhs.org