Gateway Gazette

Virtual Schools: Why Do Parents Choose Them and Do They Help Kids Learn?



Over the past 20 years, virtual public schools have become a popular alternative to traditional bricks-and-mortar schools. School choice advocates promote them as a way for children to complete their coursework online and at their own pace in almost any location, a significant benefit for families in rural areas as well as students who need or want more flexible academic schedules.

Today, dozens of virtual schools operate in the United States, many of which are run by private companies through contracts with local governments. K12 Inc. and Connections Academy are among the nation’s largest providers of virtual schools, which also are referred to as cyber schools.

News organizations have published a multitude of reports on the benefits and drawbacks of virtual education for students in kindergarten through twelfth grade. While it may be less expensive to educate children in a virtual environment than a physical school, critics question whether the quality of the experience is comparable. For example, are online courses in subjects that require hands-on learning – for example, the performing arts and chemistry — as good as those offered on the campuses of traditional high schools?

Journalists have raised questions about student performance and whether states are giving virtual schools adequate oversight. A 2016 investigative series published by The Mercury News found, among other things, that most California students attending high school through K12 Inc.’s virtual program do not earn a diploma. In addition, children “who spend as little as one minute during a school day logged in to K12’s school software may be counted as present in records used to calculate the amount of funding the schools get from the state.”

The National Education Policy Center (NEPC) at the University of Colorado Boulder studies virtual schools. In its fourth annual report, “Virtual Schools Report 2016: Directory and Performance Review,” NEPC suggests that virtual enrollment continues to grow even though virtual students often do not perform as well as students who go to traditional public schools. On average, about 41 percent of virtual high school students graduate within four years, according to the NEPC report. The national average graduation rate for public school students was 82 percent in 2013-14.


  • K12 Inc. runs online public schools in more than 30 states. The company’s annual report shows its revenue exceeded $872 million in 2016.
  • Connections Academy runs online public schools under management contracts from charter schools or school districts in most states.
  • Florida Virtual School (FVS), launched in 1997, is the nation’s largest and oldest state-funded online school. FVS saves Florida taxpayers about $2,400 per student in public education costs, according to its 2014-15 Legislative Report. All Florida high school students are required to take at least one online course to receive a standard 24-credit diploma.
  • EducationNext, a magazine published by the Hoover Institution at Stanford University and the Harvard Kennedy School, has featured several opinion pieces from scholars on virtual schools. This 2013 piece, written by a fellow at the Brookings Institution’s Brown Center on Education Policy, criticizes the findings of the National Education Policy Center.

Source: Journalist’s Resource

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