The Role of Online Schools in Choice

By Naomi Dillon

It’s natural to go to Florida to study the evolution of online learning. After all, the nation’s first statewide, Internet-based public high school opened there more than a decade ago.

And it’s natural to look to Florida for signs of where online schools are headed, even in a down economy that saw state legislators slash 10 percent of per-pupil funding in May from the Florida Virtual School’s (FLVS) $116 million budget. Despite the cut, a state mandate requiring districts to provide online learning opportunities across grade levels began in August.

“Even though we’re getting fewer dollars per student, we’re committed to using that money to the maximum,” says Pam Birtolo, the chief learning officer. “We’re trying to meet our goal of transforming education.”

Many educators and others believe online learning has the potential to do just that. According to the Sloan Consortium, more than 1 million students took online classes in 2007-08, a nearly 50 percent jump in two years. Today, 32 states run virtual schools, with two (Alabama and Michigan) requiring online learning to graduate. And the K-12 online learning market rakes in an estimated $50 million annually.

And yet, a mix of policies and funding issues, such as those found in Florida, have prevented virtual schools from making more inroads into K-12 education, especially when you consider that 4 million college students took full-time online courses in 2008. 

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