The number of full-time cyberschools serving Texas public school students will double in the coming school year despite a history of lackluster performance and a new law limiting the number of online courses that public school students are allowed to take at the state's expense.
That bill's sponsor, State Representative Ken King, Republican of Canadian, said its goal was to encourage virtual learning models that blended online classes with a traditional classroom experience. Mr. King said he added language limiting the number of tuition-free online classes that students could take to three per year because of concerns that the legislation might lead to more full-time online schools in the state and that the bill's intent was not to have more "kids sitting on their couch at home taking online classes."
Despite the provision, three new virtual schools that obtained waivers from the Texas Education Agency will allow students to receive online instruction for all their classes as early as the third grade. They open this fall.
The commercial companies that manage virtual schools have come under heightened scrutiny from lawmakers, who fear their outsize influence on public education policy.
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 full-time virtual schools.
State law prohibits commercial 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 commercial 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 cyberschools served approximately 8,300 public school students in grades 3 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. K12 has faced complaints of deceptive student-recruiting practices and poor academic performance.
Opened in 2006, 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" state accountability ratings. It is still struggling; in 2013, it was among just 9 percent of Texas public school campuses that did not meet new state accountability standards. Despite the challenges, Mary Gifford, a senior vice president at K12, said that the school now 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 Pearson's Connections Education, a commercial firm that holds a contract with the Houston Independent School District.
Houston I.S.D.'s full-time Texas Connections Academy, which Lee Ann Lockard, the academy's executive director, said would expand to 4,000 students this year, avoided the lowest state accountability rating in 2013 for the first time since it opened in 2010.
K12 will open its second full-time statewide cyberschool in the fall through a partnership with the Huntsville Independent School District and Sam Houston State University.
Shannon Duncan, a Huntsville I.S.D. spokeswoman, said in an e-mail that the school eventually planned to enroll 3,000 students in grades 3 through 12. The district is aware, she said, of other full-time programs' low performance and plans to vet participating students' academic and attendance records.
K12's move comes as Connections Education is also expanding its reach. The Red Oak school district has contracted with Connections to start a full-time virtual program of honors classes, the iScholars Magnet Academy. Its principal, Cassie Fulton, said the new 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.
This article originally appeared in The New York Times.