Virtual schooling’s popularity challenges policy makers

Because assumptions vary based on individual perceptions of the role of virtual schooling in K-12 education, school officials need to invest more time and effort communicating about these issues, not less.

With student enrollment increasing rapidly, virtual schooling is experiencing some growing pains. From high dropout rates to concerns about academic rigor, virtual schooling is generating a litany of complaints and unintended student consequences.

Recently, for example, high-flying students at a suburban high school in North Carolina were shocked to discover that their class ranks had dropped unexpectedly, just in time for many major college application deadlines—and scholarship opportunities.

The culprit? Students dually enrolled at the traditional school and in online classes offered through the state’s virtual high school earned enough credit to move from the top of the junior to the top of the senior class.

Some parents and teachers expressed concern that courses offered by the school were more rigorous than those offered by the state and shouldn’t be given the same weight in calculating GPA.

School board members worried that without some parameters, students might take more than their fair share of online classes, eating through finite budgets more quickly than anticipated and potentially limiting opportunities for other students in the second semester.

Meanwhile, as eSchool News reports here, Colorado legislators are considering new rules to ensure online education providers keep students enrolled, hire qualified teachers, spend public money wisely, and maintain reasonable student-teacher ratios. And earlier this year, shareholders filed a class-action lawsuit in Virginia against K12 Inc., the nation’s largest operator of virtual public schools. The lawsuit alleges that K12 engaged in improper and deceptive business practices.

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Interestingly, K12 reportedly has several lobbyists active in North Carolina, which lifted the cap on charter schools during the last legislative session. The State Board of Education recently approved a number of charter school proposals and has as many as 70 new applications in the pipeline.

Whether blended with more traditional instructional methods as a dual enrollment opportunity, or offered via an online-only school, virtual learning is here to stay. The key for school officials is to think through how to manage this transformative new opportunity wisely and well.

Having smart policies in place that articulate the school board’s position or philosophy about online learning and provide guidance to students, staff, and parents represents a good starting point.

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