Virtual Schools: A New Policy Challenge

Those familiar with our own working-paper series on digital learning may feel a slight sense of déjà vu when
reading this piece by freelance writer and Pioneer Institute contributor Bill
Donovan (who, in fact, references one of our own papers). But for those just dipping their toes into
the digital-learning pool—or looking to stay in the shallow end—this short
paper is helpful. Donovan explains how current funding, enrollment,
credentialing, and accountability policies hinder the growth of online
education, using state-specific examples to illuminate these issues. For instance,
Colorado and
D.C. fund schools based on attendance rates. But what about a child who learns
at odd hours, or off the school calendar, but still chalks 180 days of learning
during the year? Some states fund based on seat time. But what does that mean
for the high-flying pupil who covers two years’ worth of material in a single
annum? Does her school then only receive one year’s worth of funding? In the
end, Donovan offers a number of sane recommendations for policymakers looking
to expand the reach of digital ed: Require that schools generate more reporting
data and devise new tools to analyze these data; create performance-based
“smart caps” for online-ed programs; explore student savings accounts; and
learn from the policymaking experience of charter schools. Concrete and sage
advice, all—but not altogether novel. Donovan and others have sketched a smart series of policy recommendations.
It’s now time for policymakers to act.

William Donovan, Regulating Virtual Schools: A New Policy Challenge (Boston, MA: A Pioneer Institute White
Paper, The Pioneer Institute, number 83, March 2012).

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