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Progress Texas Report: Virtual Schools Failing, Unaccountable

A report out Tuesday from Progress Texas blasts virtual schools for having high dropout rates, high student-teacher ratios and low academic performance — and using state money to fund schools run by for-profit businesses.

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A report released Tuesday by the liberal group Progress Texas is adding another layer to the controversy over virtual schools, claiming that despite their popularity, the programs have failed Texas students and are run by businesses seeking profit.

“It’s a $24 billion industry with zero accountability,” Progress Texas executive director Matt Glazer said in a statement. “Virtual schools provide unregulated financial windfalls to a few insiders by shortchanging our children’s education.”

The Progress Texas findings come in response to a March report by the Texas Public Policy Foundation, a conservative Austin-based think tank that supported virtual schools. The TPPF report claimed that virtual schools save money and can reduce dropout rates because students who must drop out to work can take classes online whenever they have time. It said that virtual schools can also help students with special needs like dyslexia, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder and physical disabilities.

In 2004, the American Legislative Exchange Council, made up of businesses and nearly 2,000 legislators, created a bill that supported online learning in classrooms and virtual schools. The measure initiated a wave of virtual schools across the country. In 2007, Texas approved Senate Bill 1788, similar to the ALEC model, which created a state-operated virtual school network and supported integrating online learning in Texas classrooms. Tax dollars help fund virtual schools, but businesses run them.

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.

The report cites a study by Stanford University’s Center for Research on Education Outcomes, which found that all of the virtual schools in Pennsylvania “performed significantly worse” than traditional public schools in reading and math. Because Texas Virtual Academy and other virtual schools like it across the country have high dropout rates, high student-teacher ratios and poor performance, the report argues, they are not accountable to taxpayers.

But the TPPF claims that these schools have academic potential, and that they can cut costs at a time when the state needs funds to make up for an expected budget shortfall in the 2013 legislative session.

“We do consider virtual education a positive thing. There are a lot of perks in improving access and quality education in rural areas, and we think there could be fiscal benefits as well,” said James Golsan, education policy analyst at the TPPF.

In the 2013 legislative session, Progress Texas’ Political Director Phillip Martin said the organization’s goal is increased investment in public schools, which have worked and are held accountable to voters.

“If we continue to fund virtual schools, we need to hold them to the same level of accountability as traditional public schools,” Martin said.

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