Virtual Ventures Expand Choice for K-12 Students

Not long ago, online courses were programs only for universities and vocational schools.

But today, online offerings at public elementary, middle, and high schools are gaining ground, bringing more choices to parents, students, and teachers in the world of K-12 education.

Connections Academy, launched in 2002, has led the charge as the first national virtual public school. It’s available in 15 states, offering courses from kindergarten through 12th grade. The program is accredited by the Commission on International and Trans-regional Accreditation and hires certified teachers and community coordinators. The coordinators arrange field trips to museums, state capitols, historical sites, and other educational destinations.

Connections Academy’s goal is to provide the parental involvement and flexibility of homeschooling along with the strong standards and accountability of professional schooling. The program started in 2002 in two states and now operates under management contracts from charter schools or school districts in Arizona, California, Colorado, Florida, Idaho, Minnesota, Mississippi, Missouri, Nevada, Ohio, Oregon, Pennsylvania, South Carolina, Texas, and Wisconsin.

Satisfied Customers

Though critics express doubts about the quality of virtual schooling, the practice continues to show positive benefits. Virtual schools operate without many of the limitations of their physical counterparts and produce personalized programs to work with individual students and their learning styles. Nearly 15 percent of students attending Connections Academy are special-needs children.

The academy is able to work one-on-one with students, ensuring accountability by assigning a learning coach who works with the student and teacher to plan their schedule. Teachers and learning coaches discuss students’ strengths, skill deficiencies, and previous academic performance. Students take a survey to identify learning styles to help inform the teacher and focus best practices to aid in individual progress.

The students’ achievement scores indicate the benefit of these methods. At Central California Connections Academy, 100 percent of 10th graders were proficient in language arts on the California State Test in 2008-09, while the Capistrano Connections Academy had 100 percent of 5th graders score proficient.

Parents overwhelmingly support the program. In 2009 each school conducted a parent survey, and almost all parents said they would recommend the school to other families. Also, 95 percent of students were satisfied with the program, and in California 100 percent of parents were satisfied with the curriculum.

Hoosier State Setback

Despite the impressive student test results and parent satisfaction, the program is running into a roadblock in the Midwest. In 2007 the Indiana General Assembly passed a law ending state funding for virtual charter schools after a two-year trial period, which recently expired. The Indiana Connections Academy has had to suspend enrollment plans for the 2009-10 school year while the board of directors raises funds for a private pilot program to continue educating its students.

The Indiana law was passed after two virtual charter schools asked for nearly $16 million for start-up funding, which would have come out of the state charter school general fund. The legislature rejected the petition, then placed a limit on virtual school funding.

That funding concern may be misplaced, however, as a study by the Center for Evaluation and Education Policy at the Indiana University School of Education shows the schools save tax money. In a 2008 study to establish policies for virtual schools in Indiana, the center found virtual schools’ average per-pupil expenditures are approximately $8,300—almost $1,500 less than Indiana’s traditional public schools spend on each student annually.

‘Win-Win Situation’

Terry Spradlin, coauthor of the report and the center’s associate director for education policy, said, “Virtual education can be a ‘win-win situation’ in providing additional classes, such as Advanced Placement courses, to traditional students, [and] by serving students on the fringes whose needs aren’t met in bricks-and-mortar schools. That includes some gifted students, who sometimes complain they are bored by school.”

Other obstacles remain on the policy front, Spradlin said, such as rules regarding teacher training and certification, student accountability, and state and local funding.

“There really is an unfettered regulatory environment that governs virtual education,” said Spradlin.

As of late 2008, more than 93,000 students nationwide are being educated through virtual charter schools. Alabama, Florida, and Michigan have passed laws further expanding the availability of virtual charters in the past year.

Evelyn B. Stacey ([email protected]) is a research fellow in domestic policy at the Pacific Research Institute in Sacramento.

For more information …

Connections Academy Parent Survey:

“Promises and Pitfalls of Virtual Education in the United States and Indiana,” by Michael S. Holstead et al., Center for Evaluation and Education Policy, Indiana University School of Education, Spring 2008:

Nothing contained in this blog is to be construed as necessarily reflecting the views of the Pacific Research Institute or as an attempt to thwart or aid the passage of any legislation.

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