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Virtually Free

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Teachers unions and parents in many states have been butting heads for the last several months over the growing popularity of online schools. Commonly known as “virtual schools,” these programs combine the benefits of parent-led home-schooling with state-subsidized instruction by certified teachers. Students download assignments and communicate intermittently with teachers on the internet or over the phone, but their day-to-day reading, arithmetic, and other work is supervised and directed by their parents.

The approach enjoys its most enthusiastic support in geographically dispersed rural areas, because students can enroll in classes that their local schools might not have the resources to support. Another advantage is that students can move at their own pace. Says one parent of two virtual schoolers, “That’s what I love most about this curriculum. There’s no reason for [my daughter] to practice counting if she can already add.”

Prompted by the concerns of teachers unions, however, legislators in states like Wisconsin had sought to cut the public funding for these programs. Critics like Wisconsin Senator John Lehman allege that virtual schools amount to little more than publicly subsidized home-schooling, and charge that they divert badly needed money from school districts to businesses he suspects of “corporate profiteering.”

Whether it’s profiteering or not, state lawmakers recently came to a compromise on the issue after an impassioned plea from virtual school advocates. In exchange for maintaining the current levels of funding, parents agreed to abide by greater government oversight.

4 Comments

This is a difficult question. The words "greater government oversight" send chills down my spine. The word "money" and "badly needed" does the same. Are these groups interested in the students or the funding?

Perhaps what we need to decide is this: "Does distance learning work." I am a distance learning instructor at the college level, and I see some pluses and some minuses. I have no idea how this can be evaluated at the pre-college level. I think some research is needed before jumping to conclusions, either pro or con. And let's try to keep the money and the government out of it. It's about the students.

I think there will be much interest in the next few years in virtual classes hosted by school districts to meet the needs of upper level students.

Tim asked "Are these groups interested in the students or the funding?" I'm a virtual school parent in Wisconsin and I can answer this question. The state teachers' union (WEAC) is interested in the funding. They brought suit against the Wisconsin Virtual School (also called WIVA, it's one of 12 virtual charters in the state) in order to keep state funds in the students' home districts, regardless of whether those home districts are serving the students educational needs.

We have a state law saying that homeschooled and private schooled children are eligible to take up to two classes in their home district school, but our district superintendent has closed this door to virtual charter students, despite the fact that the district is still getting half the state allocated money (~$6,000) for doing nothing. If they were really so worried about the students' welfare and education, would they be slamming doors in these kids' faces?

The virtual schools are interested in the students. Our virtual charter (not WIVA) works closely with my children to provide a differentiated, one-on-one education for each of them, something our brick-and-mortar public schools do not, despite those techniques being recognized as "best practices." Both my sons are working on multiple grade levels this year. Our regular public schools would not allow this. Virtual schools provide a better educational experience, more efficiently (both in terms of money and time) and a wider variety of classes for kids in all areas (try getting enough kids together for a class in Chinese in a rural area) and of all abilities.

I am interested in virtual learning to expand the electives at the high school level in urban areas. One of the big challenges is that when a student works on a software package on a network that has access to the Internet, cruising the Internet becomes the focus. However, learning modules with assessments and immediate feedback can improve focus. It is a great opportunity to enhance study skills.

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  • Roberto Garcia: I am interested in virtual learning to expand the electives read more
  • Lessa Scherrer: Tim asked "Are these groups interested in the students or read more
  • Jane Sample: I think there will be much interest in the next read more
  • tim: This is a difficult question. The words "greater government oversight" read more

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