Students Would Benefit From Diverse Virtual Schools
What kind of student enrolls in a course online? It could be someone who needs to do remedial work, or a student who wants to study more challenging material at a higher grade level. Students who are home schooled, whose high schools don’t offer advanced placement courses, who want to take an additional foreign language, or who just want to work at their own pace might all benefit from virtual school. These students are each looking for different things when they sign up for online courses. But under Missouri’s current Virtual Instruction Program, they have to settle for one-size-fits-all online instruction.
Other states allow students to choose between competing virtual public schools. Some virtual schools have developed their own curricula, while others use online instructional programs sold by private companies. If Missouri followed the lead of other states and offered more virtual school options, Missouri’s virtual school could give students the individualized education they want.
Washington is a good example of a state with a variety of online public schools. Washington students can choose from 26 different virtual public schools. Students don’t have to enroll in one program set up by the state; instead, they can enroll in online academies that public school districts have set up in addition to their brick-and-mortar buildings. Families can borrow the required computers and other materials from the districts. The equivalent of this in Missouri would be if students in Saint Louis City could enroll in, say, a Ladue Virtual Academy and receive the same education as students in the suburbs—without having to spend hours on a bus every day.
A state doesn’t need dozens of virtual schools to create competition. When even a few virtual schools compete, they’re responsive to parents’ requests. Missouri parents were upset when they found out Missouri’s new virtual school doesn’t yet include courses at the middle school level. (Meanwhile, it offers some courses, like technology for kindergarteners, for which there is relatively little demand.) In Florida, middle school students can enroll in the Florida Virtual School, the Florida Connections Academy, or the Florida Virtual Academy. Besides the standard middle school courses, they can study electives like Spanish, French, home economics, the arts, and world cultures. If a virtual school in Florida didn’t offer enough middle school courses, students would switch to one of the other two.
Missouri’s Virtual Instruction Program didn’t have enough resources to build middle school courses from scratch in time for its first year of operations. Had it faced competition, the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education might have realized it couldn’t reinvent the wheel. Some states partner with private organizations that have already produced courses at all grade levels. For example, many states allow virtual school students to take courses from William Bennett’s k12, which sells courses to home schooling families. Students in twenty states can choose this option.
Besides giving states a way to meet demand for new courses, partnering with private organizations and offering competing online programs could prevent public virtual schools from replicating the mediocrity found in so many brick-and-mortar public schools. If the state creates a monopoly virtual school on its own, it will suffer from the same problems that plague local school districts. But if virtual schools compete with each other and take advantage of successful curricula from the private sector, they’re more likely to come up with models that improve upon the traditional public schools.
Online schools have the potential to give students across Missouri access to individualized education. The new Virtual Instruction Program is most likely to succeed if it offers students the choices they want.
Sarah Brodsky is a policy analyst at the Show-Me Institute.