In general, a virtual school is an Internet-based learning environment that allows students to participate in a class using a computer rather than being present in a classroom. Students can access all class materials, including lectures, notes, assignments, and handouts, through the Internet. Students can also access audio and video content not available to those in traditional classrooms. Certified teachers offer one-on-one communication with the student, and they often recruit experts in the subject area to engage with virtual school students through interactive lectures and online chats.
Virtual schools come in many shapes and sizes. A virtual school may be operated by a state entity, a non-profit organization, or a for-profit company. Some offer full-time programs, while others provide a part-time or “blended” approach. They are also subject to any number of performance standards and regulations, including teacher certification requirements, grade-level restrictions, enrollment caps, defined course offerings, and student-to-teacher ratio guidelines. Funding mechanisms vary significantly, as well.
Despite those differences, the one element common to all virtual schools is choice. Online and blended programs do not exist to simply repackage the status quo. Rather, they deliver a genuine alternative for children whose needs are not met by the traditional instructional or institutional model of public schooling. This has made virtual schooling a target for those who have incentives to maintain the status quo.
In North Carolina, state education officials have thwarted good faith efforts to open a virtual charter school that would compete with the state-run North Carolina Virtual Public School (NCVPS). In 2011, nonprofit organization North Carolina Learns attempted to open the first virtual charter school in the state, the North Carolina Virtual Academy.
Despite an application that met all statutory and regulatory requirements, N.C. State Board of Education chairman Bill Harrison unilaterally declared — without a board vote — that the board would not consider applications for virtual or online charter schools. Although NC Learns won an early victory in the Office of Administrative Hearings, the courts later sided with Harrisonâ€™s arbitrary and capricious decision.
In January 2013, the State Board of Education approved a standard application, accountability requirements, and operating procedures for virtual charter schools. This policy suggests that the board, which is under new leadership, is ready to embrace school choice and competition.
- Beginning as a pilot in 2005, the North Carolina Virtual Public School (NCVPS) is a state-operated online school that enrolls nearly 50,000 high school students. NCVPS offers approximately 150 courses but no full-time programs. It is the second largest virtual school in the country.
- Some of the early proponents of virtual charters made exaggerated claims about the cost savings, e.g., that the virtual charter could operate at half of the cost of a traditional public school, but they cannot operate for pennies on the dollar. In reality, savings will reach a few hundred dollars per student.
- According to a recent report, 30 states plus Washington, D.C., had at least one full-time online school operating statewide during the 2013-14 school year.
- The state should maximize competition in course offerings by expanding the number of virtual school providers, including private and for-profit online schools, as well as institutions of higher education in North Carolina and beyond. Allow state, local, and federal funds to follow the student to the traditional or virtual school (or course) of their choice.
- North Carolina should allow all current and future virtual school providers to hire teaching candidates who possess the requisite skills and relevant knowledge and experience, rather than those who possess mandated credentials. If eliminating the existing certification process is not an option, the state should reform lateral-entry or alternative certification programs, so that individuals who do not possess education credentials to teach can easily obtain them.
- The state should commission annual independent cost-benefit analyses of virtual schooling that assesses fiscal implications, student/parent satisfaction, and student performance. While the initial findings of cost savings are suggestive, the state should only expand online course offerings if the cost of those courses decreases current personnel and capital outlays at the school district level.