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Education Reporter

Public Cyberschools Take Flight as New School Choice
Online courses enhance public school offerings
Cyberspace is the new frontier of the school choice movement.

Online schooling and other distance-learning approaches are rapidly expanding in the public school sector, providing a boon to families frustrated with the limitations of regular public school. The trend takes the form of online courses offered by a regular public school to supplement its offerings, or full-blown virtual schools that take the place of attendance at a bricks-and-mortar school. The federal Department of Education noted in January that online public schools are experiencing "explosive growth."

Students in one-third of the nation's school districts took distance education courses in the 2002-03 school year, according to a report released in early March by the National Center for Education Statistics. Some 238,000 enrollments were reported in courses conducted over the internet or through video- or audio-conferencing between teachers and students regularly attending public schools. Nearly one out of 10 public schools had students enrolled in such courses.

Online courses allow students to take Advanced Placement and other high-level courses not otherwise available to students, and to reduce scheduling conflicts with other courses or activities. Such courses are more popular in the Southeast and central regions of the U.S. and in rural districts. They also help rural districts staff courses with "highly qualified" teachers as required by the No Child Left Behind Act. Most distance-learning courses are taken by high school students. (Education Week, 3-9-05)

'800 lb. gorilla of choice' 
More than 100 internet-based public schools have been founded in recent years, often in partnership with private companies. "Cyberschools are the 800-pound gorilla of the choice movement, although vouchers and charter schools get a lot more attention," Colorado education commissioner William Moloney told the New York Times (2-9-05). Colorado has increased state financing for online schools by a factor of 20 in five years, now covering 3,585 students.

Online schools can be an attractive alternative for homeschooling families, students who hold jobs, or disabled students. Highly motivated students are likelier to thrive than slackers.

"It's not a good plan for 90% of kids," Colorado's Huerfano School District superintendent Glenn Davis told the Times. "They don't have the discipline or the parental support to make it work." In Florida, students at tax-supported online schools run by corporate managers made slower progress last year on standardized math tests than did students at most traditional schools.

On the other hand, "There's a large pool out there of people who, for whatever reason, are not finding the traditional education system meeting their needs," said Tom Young, a science teacher with iQ Academies at Wisconsin. "There are things we can do very well for students and things we can't do well." (Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, 3-5-05)

iQ is a virtual high school operated by Wisconsin's Waukesha School District. Nearly l1,000 students statewide have applied to attend the high school this fall. Under the state's open-enrollment public school choice program, state aid is transferred from the students' home school districts to the Waukesha district to pay for their education. Instruction is done remotely over district-paid computers sent to the students' homes, so space is not an issue.

Wisconsin has two other open-enrollment virtual schools, serving elementary and middle school students. They have also seen enrollment soar for next year. One, Wisconsin Connections Academy, has worked well for 8-year-old Heather Drake, who had negative experiences with public schools, parochial schools and homeschooling and suffers from some disabilities. (Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, 7-31-04).

Hybrid approach controversial 
Cyberschools tend to attract families who have tried and struggled with both homeschooling and traditional schools. As a hybrid of those two approaches, online schooling remains controversial with both teachers unions and some homeschooling groups.

Teachers unions resent the loss of jobs and tax money from regular schools, while some homeschooling advocates lament that parents are relegated to a subsidiary role. Learning takes place in the home and involves a parent, but curricular materials and teacher feedback are provided. (See Education Reporter, Mar. 2004 for earlier reporting on virtual schools.)

Homeschooling success stories 
Homeschooling was also controversial when it first became popular decades ago, but it has achieved an irrefutable general success in comparison to public schools. Homeschoolers typically rank between the 65th and 80th percentile on basic skills tests, according to the National Home Education Research Institute.

In 2004, the 7,858 homeschoolers taking the ACT scored an average of 22.6, compared to the national average of 20.9, the institute reports. (mailtribune.com, 9-12-04) Homeschoolers are regularly accepted by Harvard, Yale and Princeton universities.

The prestigious Oxford University moot court team was defeated by two former homeschoolers from the four-year-old Patrick Henry College last December, in a fierce three-day competition. (Washington Times, 12-11-04) In the same month, a 16-year-old homeschooler from New York became the youngest U.S. chess champion since Bobby Fischer. (New York Post, 12-7-04)

Last year's state champion in the National Geography Bee was a homeschooler who was disqualified from competing again this year because of an obscure rule change restricting participation by homeschoolers in public school competitions. (New Hampshire Union Leader, 3-18-05)

Homeschoolers may avail themselves of a wide array of educational options supplementing parental instruction, from online courses produced by the private sector to classes and extracurricular activities geared to homeschoolers.

Homeschooled students taking an extra class with New Jersey lawyer Andy Schlafly organized an exciting dinner-debate on March 10 featuring Republican gubernatorial candidates Steve Lonegan, Bret Schundler and Todd Caliguire, who faced tough questions by students on key issues. A local cable television station aired the debate three times, and 140 New Jerseyans attended the event.

Belying the popular image of homeschoolers as shortchanged on extracurricular activities, the AAA Band of homeschoolers in Aiken, SC garnered three all-state band awards and numerous regional and county awards this spring. The band, which has played at the state capitol and in many Aiken civic events, hopes to raise $25,000 for a missions trip to Trinidad this fall.

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