Seventh-grader Marcy Thompson cried when she heard that a court had ordered the state to stop funding the virtual school she has attended for the last five years.

The ruling, the first of its kind in the U.S., placed the Wisconsin Virtual Academy at the center of a national policy debate after critics raised a key question: Do virtual schools amount to little more than home schooling at taxpayer expense?

School districts across the country are closely watching the case, which could force the academy to close and help determine the future of online education.

“It’s a great education option for lots and lots and lots of people, and they need to save it,” said Marcy, who is among more than 90,000 students from kindergarten through high school enrolled in virtual schools nationwide.

Virtual schools operate in 18 states, according to the North American Council for Online Learning, a trade association based in Virginia.

Supporters say the schools are a godsend for parents who prefer that their children learn from home. But opponents, including the nation’s largest teachers’ union, insist the cyber charter schools drain money from traditional schools.

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