Some Maine students would be served well by virtual schools, either because the online classrooms augment homeschooling lessons, offer the simplest way to educate youth who travel often or have health problems, or suit particular learning styles. There are no full-time, kindergarten-through-12th grade online schools in the state, but there are efforts to start them, and Mainers should educate themselves about the possible risks and benefits.
Distance learning is not a new concept at the college level, but an increasing number of public school students in the United States are completing their schoolwork from their living rooms and kitchens. About 250,000 students were enrolled in a full-time virtual school in 2011, up 40 percent from three years prior, according to an article in the Wall Street Journal. Every state offers some form of digital learning, while 30 states have full-time, online schools, according to the International Association for K-12 Online Learning.
Virtual schools continue to rightfully generate debate. Superintendents, principals and school boards are concerned about losing students and funding. Parents are worried about online classrooms removing the social and group-discussion component of school. There are questions about the effectiveness of online models, with some studies showing that students studying online score lower on standardized tests. Some online schools have seen success, however, and proponents argue that many students arrive to the online systems already behind academically because the traditional school approach failed them.
The online model is not for every student. Those turning to the virtual environment tend not to be poor or have special needs; students who perform better in the online setting are likely to be self-motivated learners. Parents might introduce their children to online offerings if they provide more specialized classes or flexibility than their local brick-and-mortar school. Or perhaps a student athlete needs to travel and can best complete schoolwork online. In some cases, students will not attend only an online school but take a blend of online and traditional classes.
In Maine, the question is not whether virtual schools will one day exist but how best to prepare for them. There is currently no statewide policy on the matter, but a legislatively driven resolve, signed by the governor March 1, directed the formation of a working group, which is studying the opportunities and challenges of online learning options. It would be helpful to know how many Maine children are potentially interested in attending a virtual school and what the effect would be on local districts. The group also should research what works at virtual schools elsewhere to make sure those best practices are replicated in Maine.
The Maine Charter School Commission is responsible for approving both physical and virtual charter schools, and this year it decided to postpone a decision on two virtual school applications, saying it needed more in-depth training on the issue. The applicants — Maine Virtual Academy, which proposed contracting with education service provider K12 Virtual Schools LLC, and Maine Connections Academy, which proposed contracting with Connections Education LLC — later withdrew their proposals, though they said they would reapply.
A recent story in the Portland Press Herald described how K12, based in Virginia, and Connections Education, based in Maryland, have lobbied Maine lawmakers to support virtual-school legislation and thus the formation of virtual charter schools that they would then control and profit from. People should know when lobbyists and interest groups stand to benefit from programs or laws they help develop, but the practice is not unusual. Textbook manufacturers routinely weigh in on education legislation, for example. Maine can gather policy ideas from a number of experts without being beholden to them — including companies in the field — in order to best serve students. It will need to examine the strategies pursued by other states to know what will work in Maine and what won’t.
Maine needs to ensure that future virtual charter schools are aligned with state standards, that student advancement is based on proficiency and that assessments clearly measure student progress. Teachers helping students participate in online schooling must be accessible and accountable. And there should be a separation between the entity running a virtual school and its governing board. If a virtual school does not perform at the promised level, it should be shut down.
Some opponents may argue that virtual schools take away control from districts, but they should remember that the decision to enroll a student elsewhere is a local decision, most often made by a family. Virtual schools will not be for everyone, but they can be beneficial for those who choose them. Maine should be ready to adapt to an increasingly technology-driven world.