Fightin' Words: Progress Texas vs. TPPF Over Virtual Schools

Wonks ahoy! Are virtual schools good for a students? Conflicting reports, one fromt he influential conservative think tank the Texas Public Policy Foudnation, and a reply from Progress Texas. 
Wed May 23, 2012 3:08 pm
PLACEHOLDER DO NOT USE

for-profit education companies are attacking Texas public schools, promoting virtual schools, and putting profits ahead of the education needs of Texas children. These virtual schools are largely unaccountable to Texas taxpayers, despite the fact that their students receive the exact same amount of funding as students who attend traditional public schools. In fact, virtual school students are funded at the same level of traditional public school students thanks to a law passed by Republican Senate Education Chair Florence Shapiro, who sits on ALEC's Education Task Force which is Co-chaired by employees of private companies that own and operate virtual schools in Texas.

The virtual school movement is a $24 billion industry with zero accountability.  Virtual schools provide unregulated financial windfalls to a few insiders by shortchanging our children’s education. To help combat the enormous influence of these companies, ALEC, and TPPF, Progress Texas has published a new report, titled  Invisible Schools, Invisible Success .

The report examines who is promoting virtual schools through ALEC, how those corporations are tied to Texas, the evolution of virtual schools in Texas, and why virtual schools don’t work. The report also contains a point-by-point exposure of the latest virtual school paper published by the Texas Public Policy Foundation, who last week  penned an op-ed in the Wall Street Journal stating their proud support of ALEC , even though 14 corporations and 51 elected officials – Republicans and Democrats – have already left ALEC.

Says Progress Texas 

Virtual education and blended learning present great potential for delivering substantial academic gains and cost savings in Texas, according to  a report published today  by the Texas Public Policy Foundation.

“At the K-12 level, the potential of virtual education is enormous,” said the report’s author, James Golsan. “Through the use of technology, students in rural districts would have access to the same educational resources as students in more populated areas. Familiarization with technology could prepare students for the work force more quickly.”

Virtual education is the delivery of a learning, training, or education program by electronic means. Blended learning is a mixture of instruction between a traditional classroom setting and online content delivery.

The report highlights several benefits from virtual education and blending learning, including improvements to course availability, dropout recovery, access to quality instructors, and programs for special-needs students. However, Texas remains behind the curve in making these tools available to Texas students, and should look to Florida as a model for how to significantly expand its digital offerings in a manner that promotes high academic quality and fiscal responsibility.

“Florida has one of the longest standing and most successful virtual education programs in the country,” Golsan said. “As Texas seeks to improve its own digital learning environment, an examination of the Florida model provides the state with an example by which to fashion, at the very least, its public virtual education after.”

According to Golsan, the current debate over school finance should seek to leverage the cost efficiencies that would accrue from a significant expansion of digital learning.

“Currently, Texas funds its students at a rate of around $11,000 per pupil,” Golsan said. “Research suggests that full-time virtual students can be educated for between $1,500 and $3,000 less per student than those in traditional brick-and-mortar settings.”

Says TPPF. 

Trib's Anna Whitney wrote:

One of the only full-time virtual schools in the state, Texas Virtual Academy, was ranked academically unacceptable by the Texas Education Agency in 2009 and 2011, yet enrollment in the academy increased 3,203 percent in those years — from 254 students to 8,136, according to the Progress Texas report.

Context from Trib's Morgan Smith wrote:

Through the  Texas Virtual School Network , two dozen school districts, community colleges and universities offer online courses in which students across the state can enroll. To develop the curriculum, the districts can subcontract with private companies, universities or even other districts.  Starting in third grade, Texas students can also go to virtual school full time what is now three campuses operated out of both traditional and charter school districts. The Texas Education Agency has the ultimate authority to approve the courses for both the online schools and the virtual school network, though the network’s operations take place in a service center in Houston.

Even so, despite having the second-largest school-age population of any state, Texas lags in virtual-school enrollment. According to numbers from the virtual school network, about 3,600 students enrolled in online courses last fall. In the early months of the current school year, as schools adjust to new financing rules passed by the Legislature, online enrollment is around 1,200. Compare that with Florida, where almost 260,000 students took online courses during the 2010-11 school year.

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