by Dr. Terry Stoops
Director of the Center for Effective Education, John Locke Foundation
According to British pop band The Buggles, video killed the radio star. Will virtual schools kill the classroom teacher?
Shortly after its launch in the summer of 2007, the North Carolina Virtual Public School (NCVPS) was in trouble. John Boling, who was appointed the director of the NCVPS in June of that year, resigned. Interim director Jim Barber reported problems with "stabilizing the infrastructure" and had concerns about the quality of teachers. Obviously, solid infrastructure and high quality teachers are important components of a successful virtual school.
In September 2007, state superintendent of public instruction June Atkinson sent a memo to all school systems in the state, urging patience for those who "experienced some frustration with the operational side of the NC Virtual Public School program"; i.e., "do not get mad when the virtual school crashes multiple times." Among other things, Superintendent Atkinson pointed out that the virtual school did not offer courses that some students signed up to take. In other cases, the state was forced to use out-of-state providers to meet the demand for an unspecified number of courses. Since December 2007, Dr. Bryan Setser has been the executive director of the NCVPS.
Today, the NCVPS is one of the state’s most efficient, transparent, and successful educational programs. The growth of the program under Dr. Setser’s leadership has been remarkable. Between the 2008-09 and 2009-10 school years, the virtual school enjoyed a 369 percent increase in course enrollments. According to a recent report by the Evergreen Education Group, the North Carolina Virtual Public School has the second-highest number of course enrollments of any state virtual school. North Carolina’s virtual course enrollments will reach 74,000 this year, which is a distant second to Florida’s 214,000 but far outnumbers Alabama’s 31,000 course enrollments, the third-highest total in the nation.
What accounts for the popularity of the virtual school? In a 2009 article published in The News & Observer, a student at West Johnston High School nicely summarized the appeal of virtual learning, "I personally learn better online. It’s a more relaxed atmosphere. I can go over something I can’t get or go ahead quicker if some text is particularly easy." Indeed, one size does not fit all. In conventional classrooms, teachers often try to adapt lessons to meet the needs of students with different ability levels (called differentiated instruction), but they are unable to replicate the kind of self-paced instructional environment unique to online learning.
In a study published earlier this year, I examined various cost estimates associated with online learning. A survey of the directors of 20 virtual schools in 14 states found that the average annual cost for a full-time online student was $4,310 in 2008, while the U.S. average per-pupil expenditure in public schools was $9,138 as of 2006. Only one of the virtual schools had a cost exceeding its state average. Other estimates place online programs as high as $8,300 per student per year. A 2006 study of the Florida Virtual School concluded that the state saves $1,048 per student (capital costs excluded) when they enroll in the online school. For the 2006-07 school year, the virtual school cost taxpayers an estimated 20 percent less per student, compared to the cost of funding a traditional classroom setting.
NCVPS officials acknowledge that the current recession has made calculating costs savings an extremely difficult task. The volatility of the national and state economies continues to limit the amount of state revenue dedicated to programs like the virtual school, thereby artificially deflating access to online learning. The total NCVPS budget for FY 2011 is just over $20 million, a bargain compared to the cost of offering the same courses in a brick-and-mortar school. According to one estimate, a face-to-face teacher makes an average of $55,000 per year (including benefits), while a NCVPS teacher makes $31,500 to teach the same number of students online. This does not include other areas that have the potential to save millions of taxpayer dollars, including online professional development, tutoring, Advanced Placement, and elective courses.
Let me close with a personal message. In 2009, Dr. Setser flirted with the idea of running for the 2012 Republican nomination for lieutenant governor. Drop that idea, Bryan. You would be a superb superintendent of public instruction.
Facts and Stats
NCVPS Student Enrollment by Congressional District
District 1 (Butterfield): 4,767
District 2 (Ellmers): 3,567
District 3 (Jones): 5,025
District 4 (Price): 3,235
District 5 (Foxx): 3,438
District 6 (Coble): 2,935
District 7 (McIntyre): 3,121
District 8 (Kissell): 4,464
District 9 (Myrick): 2,220
District 10 (McHenry): 3,725
District 11 (Shuler): 2,622
District 12 (Watt): 3,284
District 13 (Miller): 2,636
I would like to invite all readers to submit announcements, as well as their personal insights, anecdotes, concerns, and observations about the state of education in North Carolina. I will publish selected submissions in future editions of the newsletter. Anonymity will be honored. For additional information or to send a submission, email Terry at [email protected].
Education Acronym of the Week
NCVPS — North Carolina Virtual Public School
Quote of the Week
"Any teacher that can be replaced by a computer, deserves to be." — David Thornburg