January 14, 2011

The evolving role of state virtual schools

State virtual schools have been online learning pioneers for the past decade, improving learning opportunities for students while supporting the growing needs of school districts to deliver services beyond the expertise and resources available at the local level. Three states launched new online programs in 2010, raising the number to 31 state virtual schools across the US.  According to Keeping Pace 2010, state virtual schools provided approximately 450,000 course enrollments in for-credit courses in school year 2009-10.

Increasingly these online learning institutions are under pressure due to decreases in state funding and competition from district-level online programs and private providers.  Adding to this list of challenges is the fact that many educational stakeholders—legislators, state education administrators, school district superintendents, teachers and parents—have only a vague understanding of the value provided by their own state virtual schools.

The early years of online learning were marked with rapid growth and the need to get programs up and running to service the needs of students.  In many states, the state virtual school was the first, and often the only, source of online learning opportunities for students. With the growth of other online options, the role of the state virtual school is evolving to focus on services, in addition to supplemental online courses, innovation, and thought leadership.  State virtual schools have been instrumental in establishing quality standards and developing best practices, including online teacher requirements and professional development, and course quality standards.  In many states, virtual schools are relied upon to address statewide needs:

  • The Georgia Department of Education designated Georgia Virtual School (GAVS) as its leading partner in implementing a statewide credit recovery program that had 6,686 enrollments as of July 2010
  • IDEAL-NM is the lead institution in implementing the Graduate New Mexico credit recovery program
  • ACCESS, the state virtual school of Alabama, partners with eLearning for Educators to offer online professional development to both ACCESS teachers and teachers who teach in face-to-face environments

In other cases, state virtual schools have been relied upon to provide graduation exam prep for all students in the state at no cost to the districts (e.g., Idaho Digital Learning Academy, Virtual Virginia).  Louisiana Virtual School and Michigan Virtual School both spearhead efforts in those states to address new math requirements, offering capacity districts alone have been unable to provide with the large influx of students into algebra and other required math courses.  Many states are looking to state virtual schools to provide expertise as state education agencies and districts struggle with expanding online learning, including blended learning options for students.

Despite these obvious values, funding challenges plague many state virtual schools even as those programs are asked to provide even more online services.  Most state virtual schools are funded largely by legislative appropriation, making these programs targets for funding cuts as states legislatures face difficult budgetary issues.  The Idaho Digital Learning Academy (IDLA), one of the larger state virtual schools, saw 2010-11 funding cut 22% from the previous year despite a 49% increase in course enrollments; from 9,646 in 2008-09 to 14,345 in 2009-10.  Ninety-eight per cent of Idaho school districts have at least one student taking an IDLA course.  Several state virtual programs exist largely on course fees (e.g., Maryland Virtual School and Connecticut Virtual Learning Center), a funding model that has resulted in low enrollments and limited growth.  Only Florida Virtual School (FLVS) has a model where funding follows the student to the virtual school, and where students have the choice to attend FLVS without district approval.  Even with unparalleled success in the number of students served (nearly 214,000 course enrollments in 2009-10), FLVS has seen a 10% cut in per student funding in 2010-11. State virtual schools face challenging questions as these institutions move into a second decade of service to students and districts. How do state virtual schools become sustainable when relying on legislative funding in tough economic times? Who does the state educational agency, or progressive district, turn to for expertise or statewide online program solutions if there is no state virtual school? What role does the state virtual school play with district online programs as superintendents explore local control of online learning?  Should state virtual schools focus on areas where they can provide economies of scale and support services that too costly at the district level?

In short, state virtual schools are searching of new paradigm that allows the programs to be sustainable and relevant as online learning becomes an integral part of the curriculum and educational experience of every student, teacher and district in their respective states.

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