Recent developments in state courts and legislatures across the nation have produced mixed results for virtual education. Proponents of virtual schools—in which students receive instruction entirely online—contend the programs open new doors for students, but skeptics say they siphon tax dollars away from public schools and into the hands of for-profit companies.

At least 14 states have a state-sanctioned, state-level virtual school either planned or in place, according to “Virtual Schools: Trends and Issues,” a 2001 report commissioned by the Distance Learning Resource Network. The states are Alabama, Arkansas, Florida, Hawaii, Idaho, Illinois, Kentucky, Louisiana, Maryland, Michigan, New Mexico, North Dakota, Utah, and West Virginia.

In states that haven’t developed a statewide online learning program, however, the debate over virtual schooling continues.

In Texas, legislators last month struck down a House bill (H.B. 1554) that would have approved the implementation of virtual charter schools in that state. Under the bill, every student enrolled in a charter cyber school would have been entitled to an internet-connected computer and a printer, the Associated Press (AP) reported.

The narrow 75-66 defeat came as a surprise to bill sponsor and House Public Education Committee Chair Rep. Kent Grusendorf, R-Arlington, who had expected widespread support of the legislation.

“It was a surprise that [the legislation] failed, mostly because problems with it were never expressed,” said Grusendorf aide Byron Schlomach.

Schlomach said the bill was proposed as a means to open up the educational system and increase the options available to parents, many of whom had expressed concerns that their children were stymied by traditional classroom settings.

Schlomach attributed the bill’s failure to its “broad scope,” but at least one detractor said he was more concerned with the possibility that for-profit companies would be allowed to siphon money out of the state’s already anemic education budget.

“The reality is we ought not to be in the business of supporting for-profit education,” said Rep. Patrick Rose, D-Dripping Springs. “Any program that takes money out of our public schools would be against our better judgment.”

Still, House legislators will get another crack at cyber education soon. The state Senate has approved a companion bill that calls for a pilot program with enrollment limited to 2,000 students. The bill would require two universities to establish the program and assume general oversight, but the legislation would allow the universities to hire private companies to provide day-to-day management.

Georgia lawmakers also are wrestling with the issue of cyber education. There, the state Senate last month voted 45-2 to establish virtual charter schools. However, the legislation was tabled in a House committee and has yet to reach the floor, where a favorable vote could send it to the governor for final approval.

Jared Thomas, an aide for bill sponsor Sen. Thomas Price, R-SS-56, said the legislation would provide additional choices for parents whose children have been slow to achieve in the classroom.

“The bill targets more non-traditional students, while making sure they still have access to the public school system,” he said. “[Sen. Price] believes in giving parents more options for their children, not less.”

Thomas could not say why the bill was tabled in the House.

Despite the indecisiveness of some state legislatures, proponents of virtual schools say they are pleased with the overall progress of the movement to date.

“Part of the reality is that this is a very difficult budget year for states to be dealing with any type of legislation,” said Barbara Dreyer, president of Connections Academy, a for-profit manager of virtual schools across the country.

Just because a piece of legislation fails the first time doesn’t mean similar bills won’t be proposed in the future, Dreyer said. Where virtual schools are concerned, it’s promising to note that lawmakers are at least considering the possibility.

“Not everyone is going to get it right away,” she said. “We want to see responsible growth, and we think that’s why some legislatures are taking their time.”

Thanks in part to the No Child Left Behind Act, which places the focus squarely on student achievement, lawmakers and school leaders are being forced in some cases to look beyond the confines of the classroom for solutions that can help all students succeed.

“All kids are not going to benefit from the same solutions,” Dreyer said. “We have to find new ways to use our resources.”

Dreyer’s company has enjoyed recent victories in Pennsylvania and Wisconsin—victories she hopes will enable proponents of the virtual school movement to turn doubters around.

In Pennsylvania—a pioneer of the virtual school movement—lawmakers recently agreed to the first cyber charter school since a revision to the state’s charter school law empowered officials to approve or reject cyber school charters on a more stringent basis than their brick-and-mortar counterparts. The Commonwealth Connections Academy (CCA) plans to enroll about 400 students from across the state in kindergarten through eighth grade. The program, which is aligned to state standards, will include a combination of computer-based instruction and individualized guidance from certified teaches, tailored to individual students’ needs.

The Harrisburg-based school was among five proposed cyber schools whose applications initially were rejected by the state Education Department in January because organizers failed to demonstrate sufficient community support, among other reasons, AP reported.

Department officials granted the school a three-year charter that expires June 30, 2006, and can be renewed for five years after that. CCA had to revise its application twice before it was approved. According to AP, eight online schools currently operate in Pennsylvania, but one of them—the Einstein Academy Charter School—was ordered to close in June unless it successfully appeals the revocation of its charter.

The state’s new cyber-school law was passed last year in response to complaints that existing charter school laws did not adequately address the circumstances presented by online schools, which draw students from various districts across the state—forcing the districts in which the students live to pay the tuition cost. (See “Pennsylvania seeks fix for troubled cyber schools,” http://www.eschoolnews.com/news/showStory.cfm?ArticleID=3847.)

CCA will provide free computers and internet connections to families who need them and has agreed to pay the internet bills of families who already have online service, AP reported.

In another milestone for Connections Academy—and for virtual schooling in general—a Wisconsin judge has dismissed a lawsuit filed by the state’s teachers union questioning the legality of Wisconsin Connections Academy, a 300-student virtual school chartered by the Appleton School District.

The Wisconsin Education Association Council complained that the company would reap huge profits from state money granted for per-pupil expenditures. These expenditures were calculated to include many services not provided under the virtual model, the council said, including funds for teacher’s aides, janitors, nurses, school psychologists, and extra-curricular activities. (See “Teachers’ union challenges legality of Wisconsin cyber school,” http://www.eschoolnews.com/news/showStory.cfm?ArticleID=3930.)

Dreyer stands firm against critics who say the company and its academies are only in it for the money. “This idea that we are turning some huge profit is really humorous to us,” she said, pointing out it would be extremely difficult for districts to provide these online alternative schools on their own.

Depending on the size of the school, the investment can range from the millions to tens of millions of dollars, she said. That’s a hard sell for most states, especially considering the recent budget crunch.

Dreyer equated the addition of virtual schools to purchasing textbooks. “Schools do not produce their own textbooks,” she said. “You need someone to come in and deliver a product and create some efficiency.”

Links:

Distance Learning Resource Network
http://www.dlrn.org

Connections Academy
http://www.connectionsacademy.com