Virtual schools booming as states mull warnings

Online schools aggressively court new students in Colorado, where they are paid the same as brick-and-mortar schools. But so far, the results have been discouraging.

A 2010 report by the state Department of Education showed below-average test scores, dropout rates near 50 percent in some cases, and a student-to-teacher ratio as high as 317 to 1 at one school. Still, enrollment grew more than 12 percent between 2008 and 2009, and Colorado’s online schools get paid for an entire school year even if a student drops out after Oct. 1, the date the state tallies student enrollment.

“I know there are millions of dollars being bled from the system that have no accountability tied to them,” said Democratic Senate President Brandon Shaffer, whose requested an audit of online schools but was blocked by Republicans.

“If you’re the person bringing this up, you’re labeled anti-choice, anti-reform,” Shaffer said.

An October report by the University of Colorado-based National Education Policy Center said school-choice advocates are pushing states to rush headlong into K-12 virtual learning despite limited data.

“These online school providers are raking in hundreds of millions of dollars, and the product they’re putting out is just horrible,” said Gene Glass, author of the CU report and a vocal critic of public funding for online schools. But he said legislators see online schools as a cost-saver so states are moving forward.

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Idaho and Florida passed laws in the last year requiring high school students to take at least one course online. Ohio lifted a moratorium on new “e-schools,” and Utah passed a “virtual voucher” law allowing high school students to choose which courses to take online and which to take at a brick-and-mortar school.

Virtual learning can fill an important void for some students.

In Mims, Fla., 14-year-old Celestial McBride was homeschooled by her mother after third grade because the family traveled frequently. Now she takes courses from the public Florida Virtual School, where she studies at her own pace and expects to have a college-level associate’s degree by the time she’s 16.

“I think you learn faster online,” said McBride, who attends virtual “clubs” including the school’s student newspaper, published online, of course.

“In a regular classroom, you could always have the kid who’s a disruption,” she said. “Online, there’s no disruption.”

McBride’s mom, Nancy McBride, said that taking classes online allows her children to travel without falling behind.

“The misconception is that the teacher isn’t there. Not true. The teacher’s right there, and they’re involved with my kids at every step,” she said.

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