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Options for Full-Time Online Instruction Expand in Texas

The number of full-time cyber schools serving public school students will double in the upcoming year despite a history of lackluster performance and a new law limiting how many online courses students can take at the state’s expense.

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The number of full-time cyber schools serving Texas public school students will double in the upcoming school year despite a history of lackluster performance and a new law limiting how many online courses public school students can take at the state’s expense.

The law's author, state Rep. Ken King, R-Canadian, said its goal is to encourage virtual learning models that blend online instruction with a traditional classroom experience.  He said he added language limiting the number of tuition-free online classes students can take to three per year because of concerns that the legislation might lead to more full-time online schools in the state.

“I was catching some pressure about, ‘Well, it can be perceived that you are trying to open the door for more full-time virtual schools,’” he said, adding that the bill’s intent was to create academic opportunities for students in rural public schools, not to have more “kids sitting on their couch at home taking online classes.”

While many educators believe online instruction can benefit students in some circumstances, they have also raised concerns over insufficient financial oversight and poor academic performance in the state's full-time virtual schools. The for-profit companies that manage virtual schools have also come under heightened scrutiny from lawmakers, who fear their outsize influence on public education policy.

Despite King’s provision, three new virtual schools that obtained waivers from the Texas Education Agency will allow students to receive online instruction for all of their classes as early as the third grade. They will open this fall.

State law prohibits for-profit entities from operating public schools. But when it comes to full-time online programs, it is common for public districts and charter schools to turn over almost all management to for-profit companies. This is considered a turnkey solution for districts lacking the resources to support an in-house online school.

Last year, the state’s three existing full-time cyber schools served approximately 8,300 public school students in grades three through 12. More than 5,000 of those students were enrolled in the Texas Virtual Academy, which is owned by a Lewisville-based charter school network and managed by K12 Inc. Over the past two years, K12 Inc., a for-profit company that operates in more than 2,000 school districts across the U.S., has faced complaints of heavy teacher workload, deceptive student recruitment practices and poor academic performance in its operations in other states.

Opened in the 2006-07 school year, the Texas Virtual Academy moved to its current charter partner in 2011 when its original partner did not renew a contract after two years of “academically unacceptable” rankings in state accountability standards. It is still struggling with academic performance. In 2013, it was among just 9 percent of Texas public school campuses that did not meet a new set of state accountability standards. Acknowledging the school’s past challenges, Mary Gifford, a senior vice president at K12 Inc., said in an email that she was pleased with the strides made in student achievement, noting the academy met or exceeded state standards in all but one area.

Nearly all of the rest of the state’s full-time online students attend a school managed by another for-profit firm — Pearson’s Connections Education, which holds a contract with the Houston Independent School District.

Houston ISD’s full-time Texas Connections Academy, which Lee Ann Lockard, the academy’s executive director, said will expand to 4,000 students this year, avoided the lowest state accountability rating in 2013 for the first time since it opened in 2010.

Lockard said there was a growing awareness among students and educators about the rigors of online education.

"Oh my word, you are not getting out of anything,” she said. “In fact, you are getting into something really major."

K12 Inc. will open its second full-time statewide cyber school in the fall through a partnership with the Huntsville Independent School District and Sam Houston State University. Shannon Duncan, a spokeswoman for Huntsville ISD, said in an email that the school eventually planned to enroll 3,000 students in grades three through 12. She said the district was aware of low academic performance in other full-time programs and planned to vet the students who participated in the Huntsville program based on their academic and attendance records.

K12 Inc.’s move comes as Connections Education is also expanding its reach in the state.

Red Oak ISD, which is about 25 miles south of Dallas, has contracted with Connections to start a full-time virtual program of honors classes called the iScholars Magnet Academy. The academy’s principal, Cassie Fulton, said the new virtual school would not enroll more than 50 students in its first year.

“We thought if we are able to manage our numbers, we can really give them the special touch,” she said. 

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