Conceived as a way to teach a small segment of the home-schooled and others who need flexible schooling, virtual education has evolved into an alternative to traditional public schools for an increasingly wide range of students — high achievers, strugglers, dropouts, teenage parents and victims of bullying among them.
“For many kids, the local school doesn’t work,” said Ronald J. Packard, chief executive and founder of K12. “And now, technology allows us to give that child a choice. It’s about educational liberty.”
Packard and other education entrepreneurs say they are harnessing technology to deliver quality education to any child, regardless of Zip code.
It’s an appealing proposition, and one that has attracted support in state legislatures, including Virginia’s. But in one of the most hard-fought quarters of public policy, a rising chorus of critics argues that full-time virtual learning doesn’t effectively educate children.
“Kindergarten kids learning in front of a monitor — that’s just wrong,” said Maryelen Calderwood, an elected school committee member in Greenfield, Mass., who unsuccessfully tried to stop K12 from contracting with her community to create New England’s first virtual public school last year. “It’s absolutely astounding how people can accept this so easily.”
People on both sides agree that the structure providing public education is not designed to handle virtual schools. How, for example, do you pay for a school that floats in cyberspace when education funding formulas are rooted in the geography of property taxes? How do you oversee the quality of a virtual education?
“There’s a total mismatch,” said Chester E. Finn Jr., president of the Thomas B. Fordham Institute, a conservative think tank, who served on K12’s board of directors until 2007. “We’ve got a 19th-century edifice trying to house a 21st-century system.”
Despite questions, full-time virtual schools are proliferating.
In the past two years, more than a dozen states have passed laws and removed obstacles to encourage virtual schools. And providers of virtual education have been making their case in statehouses around the country.
K12 has hired lobbyists from Boise to Boston and backed political candidates who support school choice in general and virtual education in particular. From 2004 to 2010, K12 gave about $500,000 in direct contributions to state politicians across the country, with three-quarters going to Republicans, according to the National Institute on Money in State Politics.