Focus on Policy: Virtual Schools

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Virtual Schools in Texas: Good for Kids or Merely Good for Profit?

The Underground School System

Few Texans are aware that their tax dollars go to fund an online learning universe, one that offers classes to third graders, high school seniors and even students who never attend a brick-and-mortar school. This ever-growing part of our public education system, referred to as virtual education, functions in large part below the radar, with little known about its operations and outcomes. But for many students, it’s a way to earn credits toward a high school diploma, or perhaps fill in the gaps at a traditional school that does not offer certain courses. For others, it is the sole provider of their public school education, as they are full-time virtual education students.

Regardless of what shape it takes, virtual education in Texas has evolved and expanded into a complex system of courses and programs that serves thousands of students across the state. Objective information and data to understand
how – and how well – this form of instructional delivery works for Texas public school students has not been reliably collected or publicized up to this point.

Despite the lack of information on virtual schools, there is interest in expanding them in Texas, as evidenced by this 2012 interim charge to the Senate Education Committee of the Texas Legislature:

Study the growing demand for virtual schools in Texas. Review the benefits of virtual schools, related successes in other states, and needed changes to remove barriers to virtual schools.

Implicit in this charge are the assumptions that virtual schools are beneficial, barriers to accessing them exist and those barriers should be removed.

Indeed, some in the education arena claim that virtual schools represent the future of education and will be a cure-all for the state’s budget woes. Others, however, describe this new way of delivering education as nothing more than a black hole of profit-driven programs that do not deliver.

The truth seems to lie somewhere in between. While virtual education has its benefits, it has not been validated as a reliable and effective way to educate students on a full-time, widespread basis. To properly address and improve this system, we must understand the history, evolution, challenges and data surrounding the virtual education world.

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