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Virtual Education Would Face Tougher Standards Under Tennessee Plan

Tennessee Gov. Bill Haslam is pressing for higher standards and restrictions on growth at virtual schools in the state, amid rising complaints about the lackluster performance of a major online provider.

The Republican governor is backing legislation that would cap student enrollment at the Tennessee Virtual Academy and would tie online schools' growth to their ability to produce strong academic results, according to the Chattanooga Times-Free Press.

The Tennessee Virtual Academy operates out of Union County, a rural area in the eastern part of the state. It is operated by K12, Inc., a major operator of online schools across the country that has drawn criticism from those taking issue with its business model and academic performance.

The Tennessee Virtual Academy's test scores during 2011-12 were low—it barely avoided ranking in the lowest 10 percent of schools in the state—an academic showing that has rankled state legislators, as well as state education commissioner Kevin Huffman, the Times-Free-Press reported.

Haslam's legislation on virtual education will be brought forward by House Majority Leader Gerald McCormick, a Chattanooga Republican, according to the newspaper.

The legislation is "meant to enhance the accountability for virtual schools, and to base their future growth on demonstrated performance," said Kelli Gauthier, a spokeswoman for the state department of education, in an e-mail. "This is a matter of learning from the first year of implementation of the Virtual Schools Act and making improvements with a focus on student achievement."

Tennessee is not the only state where policymakers are calling for online providers to do better. Republican legislators in Pennsylvania have introduced their own proposal to raise standards on cyber charters, as cyber charters' academic showing has been called into questions.

As that legislative effort goes forward, Pennsylania's state education secretary, Ron Tomalis, this week rejected eight applications for cyber charters, citing a number of concerns about whether they could live up to what they were promising, from a financial and operational standpoint.

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