NCPA - National Center for Policy Analysis


April 11, 2006

Charter schools are making headlines again, but this time in the form of virtual schools, says Andrew Rotherham, codirector of Education Sector, a nonpartisan education policy group.

Teachers' unions are turning to the courts to fight virtual schools -- public charter schools that offer all of their courses online; but virtual charter schools are actually relatively minor players in the field of alternative education, says Rotherham:

  • There are 147 online-only charter schools in 18 states, with 65,354 students.
  • In other words, they make up just 4 percent of the entire public charter school sector, and a third of them can be found in just one state, Ohio.

However, they are still valuable to students, says Rotherham:

  • For example, a student in a rural community with few schooling options who finds the curriculum in her school too limiting might be better served through an online program that allows her to learn at her own pace.
  • So, too, might a ninth grader who finds unbearable the jock-and-popularity culture that still largely prevails in our high schools.
  • Some parents may also want to be more involved in their child's education than is possible in traditional public schools but don't have the time or resources to do fully independent home schooling.

Virtual charter schools do raise some accountability problems -- like enrolling ineligible students -- but better state regulation and oversight will help to solve the problems; what they don't need is reflexive opposition from the teachers' unions, says Rotherham.

Furthermore, virtual charter schools are just part of a larger debate about public education; there is a universal American desire for customization and variety in goods and services, and education must respond to that demand, whether unions like it or not, says Rotherham.

Source: Andrew J. Rotherham, "Virtual Schools, Real Innovation," New York Times, April 7, 2006.

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