Virtual Learning and Parental Choice
There has been a tremendous shift in parent attitudes toward school choice over the past year. The pandemic and difficult transition to Zoom-based learning in many school districts has caused more parents to consider alternative educational settings for their kids, whether that be a local private school that was open for in-person learning or a certified virtual school that offered a higher quality learning experience for their kids.
Recent polling shows that 29% of parents want to keep their kids in a fully virtual environment post-pandemic. As a result, public schools around the country are looking for ways to accommodate these shifting attitudes. Montgomery County, MD, the 15th largest school district in the country, has responded to this demand by creating a “Virtual Academy” for students in certain extenuating circumstances. This option is made possible by the county’s size and resources, but another driving factor is likely the fact that Maryland reimburses for virtual learners at the same rate as in-person learners.
This is not the case in several other states, like Kansas, Georgia, Ohio, Wyoming and Wisconsin, where virtual learners receive about half of the per-pupil funding that an in-person learner would receive. The actual cost of virtual learning is difficult to ascertain, but the Aurora Institute estimates that it typically should be between 93% and 98% of in-person costs due to the similarity in student-teacher ratios, support services, and administrative needs. Contrary to popular belief, virtual learning is not significantly cheaper to administer than in-person learning.
Over the past several months, there has been tremendous interest in requiring schools to offer both an in-person and virtual learning option. This effort was led early on by Governors DeSantis, Reynolds, Stitt, and Abbott who all signed executive orders requiring an in-person learning option for students. In each case, however, the Governors did not require that students attend school in-person and gave parents the option to choose which instructional environment was best for their child. Don Lee, the National Chair of ALEC’s Private Enterprise Advisory Council and Vice-President of Government Affairs for Stride, Inc., wrote a great article several months ago on the key differences between emergency remote learning and quality virtual schooling from a certified provider. As Don notes, certified virtual schools have been providing online instruction to students for many years and have developed specialized systems and methods that are best for online instruction. For students in emergency crisis remote learning situations there is a variety of software and websites to keep track of, including Zoom, Blackboard, Synergy, and more. In a certified virtual school, all of these things are included in a single, streamlined platform designed for a better online learning experience.
Over the past few months, we have seen many studies draw broad conclusions that virtual schools fail to outperform in-person learning. Unfortunately, many of these studies fail to differentiate between Zoom learning and what a student would experience in a certified virtual school. For example, this study conducted by McKinsey earlier this year suggests that teachers widely believe virtual learning is insufficient, but it is not clear how many, if any, of the polled teachers come from a traditional public school or a certified virtual school. If analyzed separately, these two groups of teachers may well come to very different conclusions.
Virtual schools, much like charters, homeschooling, or traditional public schools aren’t going to be the best environment for every student. This is why it is so important that parents are empowered to select what the best school for their child will be. According to an analysis of empirical evidence compiled by the Oklahoma Council of Public Affairs, school choice creates better academic outcomes (even among public school students), saves the taxpayers money, and increases civic knowledge. The evidence is clear that parents, not zip codes, should be empowered to choose the best learning environment for their child, and virtual schools should be a part of that decision.