Virtual Charter Schools: Pros and Cons of the Growing Trend

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Virtual Charter Schools: Pros and Cons of the Growing Trend
Virtual charter schools are growing in popularity, yet are they truly helping students learn? Consider the pros and cons of virtual charter schools and if they are right for your child.
Just as the internet has changed the way Americans shop, date, and stay updated with the news, it is also changing the landscape of American education. Across the country, elementary, middle, and high school students are opting out of traditional public schools in favor of attending virtual charter schools.
Virtual charter schools provide students with online courses of study taught by licensed teachers. According to the International Association for K12 Online Learning, 200 virtual charter schools were in operation nationwide during the 2008-09 school year.  Experts expect this number to grow, as the K-12 online learning industry is expanding at an estimated annual pace of 30%.
As the number of students who choose to enroll in virtual charter schools swells, critics of this new educational trend have begun voicing their concerns. Opponents believe that virtual charter schools could become a disservice to all students, and worse, a dangerous final nail in the coffin of an already weakened public education system. Meanwhile, advocates for the online educational model maintain that the individualized and customized learning that virtual charter schools enable is exactly what many modern-day students need.
Advantages of Virtual Charter Schools
Customized, Personalized Learning
The largest advantage of virtual charter schools is their ability to offer students customized, individualized programs of study. In traditional public schools, teachers often have to slow down the pace of their instruction in order to cater to the slowest students in the classroom, and this can leave more adept students bored and under-stimulated.
In contrast, virtual charter schools allow students to work at their own pace, spending longer on those concepts or subjects that are more difficult, while moving quickly onto more challenging topics as soon as they are ready. 
Potential Solution to Problems with Public Schools
Many proponents of virtual charter schools also argue that online educational models offer a viable alternative to a public educational system that is widely agreed to be under-serving America’s youth. As schools nationwide continue to fail to meet state-determined proficiency requirements and an alarming number of students drop out of high school, virtual charter schools are poised to be an excellent alternative. 
Virtual charter schools also eliminate social and behavioral issues that are prevalent at public schools, especially at the high school level. In a traditional school, students’ learning may be severely hindered by non-academic problems ranging from the presence of gangs on campus to chronic disciplinary problems that prevent teachers from focusing on instruction. Parents are understandably concerned that their own children will fall through the cracks of the public education system, overlooked and unnoticed by teachers who are too busy putting out the fires of behavior problems to tend to the individual learning needs of every child in a classroom.
Virtual charter schools offer a potential solution to these problems, as they afford students an opportunity to learn at their own pace in a safe home environment – free from social stresses and distractions that can often accompany a public school classroom.
Disadvantages of Virtual Charter Schools
Taking Money Away from Public Schools
Although the virtual charter school movement has laudable goals and potentially great advantages over traditional schooling, skeptics have not hesitated to express their concerns.
Chief among the potential disadvantages with virtual schools, according to critics, is the likelihood that virtual charter schools will take money away from brick and mortar public schools. If virtual charter schools receive money from the local school district for each pupil enrolled, traditional public schools will experience a reduction in funding that could prove devastating to a system that is already on shaky financial ground in many states.
Teachers’ unions in Pennsylvania and Wisconsin, both states with burgeoning virtual charter schools, have filed suit against the online schools in recent years. These unions argue that by giving money to virtual charter schools rather than public schools, the state and local school districts are merely funding a glorified form of home-schooling at the taxpayers’ expense, according to the Atlanta Journal-Constitution.
Neither lawsuit was successful in court, but in recent months, school boards in states such as Georgia have begun to study the budget issues posed by virtual charter schools in more detail. With all this controversy, the debate surrounding online charter school funding will likely be ongoing.
Lack of Social Interaction
Another potential drawback of the virtual charter school movement is the potential for students to feel isolated in their home-based studies. Traditional schools, these critics point out, often teach students essential social skills that are far more important to the students’ long-term success in the workplace than the content outlined in a teacher’s lesson plan. Some have also voiced their concerns that sitting in front of a computer screen may not be able to offer the same type of mental stimulation that a classroom discussion can provide.
Although students of virtual charter schools can and do communicate with one another via online forums, questions about whether this kind of interaction can replace the interactions in a live classroom persist.
Individual Choices for a 21st Century Education
As state education boards and legislative officials begin to grapple with the questions of how to fund virtual charter schools without hurting existing public schools, parents and children continue to evince an interest in this alternative to traditional school.
In our 21st century world, students and parents alike have grown to expect and demand the ability to customize various aspects of their lives: their Google home pages present only the RSS feeds they have selected, their internet radio stations play songs based on personalized recommendations, and web sites like Netflix and suggest movies and books that are tailored to each particular user’s profile. Should education be any different? 
As virtual charter schools begin to offer students the ability to personalize and customize their K-12 education, the state and federal agencies responsible for overseeing our nation’s educational system will continue to wrestle with the financial and academic dilemmas that these online learning options raise.
Parents and students eager for alternatives to the one-size-fits-all model of public education will likely not want to wait for the results of official deliberations, and the movement for individualized virtual charter schools shows no signs of disappearing.

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