Virtual learning just makes sense, says Robb Streeter, principal of South Carolina’s Cross High School.
“We shop online, bank online, do everything else online, so why not go to school online?” Streeter said.
Streeter is just one of many people across the state praising a new law signed by Gov. Mark Sanford (R) on May 17 creating the South Carolina Virtual School Program as an occasion for more students–especially higher-performing ones–to access academic courses their schools are unable to provide.
Detractors see it as a “camel’s nose under the tent” effort by a governor who has worked tirelessly to expand school choice in the state, which currently offers parents very few options.
Some legislators voted against the bill because they oppose school choice, even though homeschooled and privately educated students who enroll in the online courses will likely be required to pay for the curriculum materials that public school participants will receive for free. South Carolina education officials say they are still working out some of the details, including any additional fees charged nonpublic school students.
“When the debate turned into a school choice debate, those who were opposed to school choice said ‘no’ and tried to turn it into an ‘us-versus-them’ situation,” said Denver Merrill, communications director for South Carolinians for Responsible Government, a free-market group based in Columbia. “Thankfully, there are a number of common-sense legislators who were willing to fight for this because it offers learning opportunities for more kids.”
The law appropriates $3.6 million to put the program into effect this school year but limits participation to 3,000 students per semester–not much of an increase from the 1,921 students from 11 school districts who participated in a pilot program that began on a limited basis last summer.
Still, supporters say it’s a positive development, especially for children in rural communities and those in the “low country” along the coast.
“It’s certainly not a massive program, but it was a step in the right direction,” Merrill said. “The more options, the better.”
Streeter, whose rural school has 430 students in grades seven through 12, agreed. He expects the program particularly to benefit children who already are “focused and motivated.”
“Those who are in what we call ‘credit recovery’–who are struggling–this probably will help them much less,” Streeter said. “They will need more interaction.”
As a result, some school choice advocates say the program represents another “top-down” solution by the education bureaucracy that widens the academic and technological divide between lower-income minority children and computer-savvy white children in middle- or upper-income districts. They say more choice among schools is the answer.
“The parents who have no choices are not the parents who are capitalizing on this kind of a top-down program, which is what this virtual school project represents,” said Neil Mellen, research director for the South Carolina Policy Council, a think tank in Columbia.
“The best way to facilitate instruction is choice,” Mellen continued. “Give our underserved kids the same opportunity that upper- and middle-class districts have, who can attend public or private schools–whichever ones have computers and best fit their needs.”
Leaders of South Carolina’s homeschooling community offered only a tepid endorsement.
Gale Farrier, a board member of the South Carolina Home Educators Association, is concerned some homeschooling parents will view virtual products created and offered by the public school system as a substitute for parental involvement rather than an instructional aid.
“When you’re taking an online public school course, you’re turning over your responsibilities as a parent to the public schools,” Farrier said.
While she acknowledges “it’s a good thing” for parents teaching advanced courses to high school students who may need help, Farrier said, “there are a number of online, virtual, for-profit schools where you can get the same things without turning over your child’s education to the public schools.”
However, the cost of some of those products may be prohibitive–especially for parents who already sacrifice one full-time income to homeschool their children while still paying taxes to support the public education system they don’t use. Convergemag.com, which covers technology issues in education, reports U.S.-based online tutoring services charge an average of $40 per session if done electronically and $100 for face-to-face sessions.
According to the Southern Regional Education Board, homeschoolers make up 20 percent of students participating in Florida’s virtual school, which began in 1996 as the nation’s first public virtual school.
It’s also the largest program of its kind. Participation in the Sunshine State’s virtual school, which offers courses for students in grades six through 12, grew by more than 63 percent in the past year alone–from more than 33,000 students during the 2005-06 school year to around 54,000 last year.
According to Florida’s virtual school officials, the program is defying the concerns of critics who anticipated a lack of participation by low-income and minority students. More than 40 percent of participants in Florida’s advanced placement online courses are minority students.
Other states’ efforts also address the digital divide. Michigan now requires all students to take “one online learning course” or participate in at least one “online learning experience” in order to receive their high school diplomas. The law took effect in April, and its impact on low-income children remains unknown.
It is estimated more than 700,000 students in K-12 are enrolled in online courses nationwide, and 24 states offer state-led virtual learning programs.
Jim Waters ([email protected]) is director of policy and communications at the Bluegrass Institute for Public Policy Solutions in Bowling Green, Kentucky.