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Education Reporter

Online Schools Gain Popularity, Face Down Legal Challenges
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About half a million American public school students take online classes to supplement their coursework in traditional schools. Full-time online charter schools now operate in 18 states, allowing about 90,000 children to attend school online through virtual public schools. These 90,000 students take classes only online and do not attend another school. Some school boards and districts don't know what to make of the new full-time online charter school model. The teachers unions, however, know they don't like it. In several states, unions and districts have brought lawsuits against virtual schools.

Virtual schools allow students to take unusual or advanced classes that their local school districts don't offer, such as Chinese or linear algebra. Students enrolled in virtual schools full-time can work at their own pace and focus on what interests them most. They can "go to school" anywhere, and arrange their schooling to accommodate other important activities, such as practicing a musical instrument or another talent.

Homeschooling offers some of those same advantages, and many students of online charters were formerly homeschooled. Now they are public school students, although they still attend school from home. Their online schools are part of the public school system, are taxpayer-financed, and must comply with federal testing requirements.

The problem for teachers unions is obvious. Students enrolled in virtual schools communicate with their certified teachers over the internet or by phone, but spend most of the school day working independently or with their parents' help and oversight. The Wisconsin Virtual Academy, a full-time charter school of 800 students, employs 20 teachers. Because a traditional school of the same size would employ many more, some teachers complain that online schools draw students and funds away from traditional schools.

The Wisconsin teachers union, an NEA affiliate, sued the Wisconsin Virtual Academy in 2004. According to the union, that school and the state's eleven other online charters violated state law on teacher licensure, since unlicensed parents were effectively overseeing much of their children's schooling. A state court dismissed the case, but in December of 2007 an appeals court sided with the union.

The Wisconsin legislature tackled the issue early in 2008. About 1,000 students and parents rallied at the state capitol in support of online schooling. Lawmakers responded with a bill that allows the online charter schools to stay open and leaves funding levels as they are, but increases state oversight of the schools.

Several districts in Pennsylvania sued over virtual charter schools in 2001. The districts claimed that online schools drained funds from traditional schools and allowed parents to homeschool their children at taxpayer expense. The districts lost the lawsuit, and online charter schools continue to operate in Pennsylvania.

It is clear that virtual schooling plays an important role in the future of both public and private education. State by state, America continues to evaluate what that role will be, and how to balance the opportunities such schools offer with the need for accountability to taxpayers.

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