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Should Texas Embrace Virtual Schools?

The Texas Senate Education Committee isholding a hearing to address virtual education and its growing use in Texas. Committee members will hear testimony on virtual education and recommendations to improve programs that are underperforming. 

Texas offers both supplemental and full-time virtual education. Students in supplemental programs take online courses in addition to attending traditional face-to-face classes. Those enrolled in virtual schools full-time get all of their instruction online and don’t receive any classroom instruction.

The number of students enrolled in virtual schools in Texas is growing rapidly. Raise Your Hand Texas, an education policy non-profit, reports that enrollment in virtual education programs grew 97 percent in the past six years. In the 2010-2011 academic year, 17,000 Texas students were enrolled in supplemental online courses.  Last school year, 6,000 students were enrolled in full-time virtual programs. 

The umbrella program created by the Texas Legislature to oversee virtual schools, the Texas Virtual School Network, is accountable to the Texas Education Agency. The TEA approves virtual courses and evaluates the schools under state accountability measures. 

Advocates of virtual education tout the flexibility it offers students. They argue that it allows both advanced and struggling students to work at their own pace. Students who desire to take classes that their district doesn’t offer can take enroll in them virtually.

Virtual programs also provide extra instruction for students struggling to keep up. Proponents of virtual schools also contend that virtual schools can lower the drop out rate in Texas, because students who drop out to work full time can do their online coursework around their work schedule. 

Finally, virtual they point to virtual schools as a more cost-effective form of education than traditional brick and mortar schools. In a March 2012 report on virtual education, the Texas Public Policy Foundation stated, “Increasing access to online learning in this state could prove to be a substantial cost saver, and will without a doubt improve choice and flexibility in the design of a student’s education.”

Those skeptical of virtual education express concern over the fact that the schools are state funded, but run by private companies. These companies hire the teachers and design the curriculum.  In its own 2012 report on virtual schools, Progress Texas estimates that revenue for the online earning industry will reach $24.5 billion by 2015.  It also worries that the standardized test scores of students enrolled in full-time virtual programs were lower than the statewide average in all TAKS subjects for the 2010-2011 academic year. 

Progress Texas concluded in their report that, “The virtual school experiment has failed in Texas, unable to meet even the lowest of statewide standards and incapable of maintaining any accountability to Texas taxpayers.”

Raise Your Hand Texas’s own studyof virtual schools was released earlier this month.  It concludes that because the cost per student in virtual schools can’t be determined from public reports, it’s hard to tell if they’re cost effective or not. Because full-time virtual schools struggle to maintain an academically acceptable accountability rating, the study argues the legislature should be cautious in expanding funding and access to virtual schools. 

Democratic Sen. Leticia Van de Putte chairs today’s committee meeting. Republican Sen. Dan Patrick was recently appointed to be the new permanent chair of the committee, in a move legislature watchers say signals an increased emphasis on so-called "school choice" this coming session.

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