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Clearing up misconceptions about online schools

This article was submitted by Lori Cooney, president of the Colorado Coalition of Cyberschool Families, a member of the board of directors at Colorado Virtual Academy, and a mother / learning coach/mentor to two children enrolled in COVA.

As an advocate of online public education in Colorado, a parent of successful online students, and a taxpayer, I am concerned that recent media attention focused on Colorado’s public online schools is only fueling some common misconceptions about this education option.

Worse, if left unchecked, these misconceptions may ultimately become a pretext for misguided attempts to undermine public online schools and leave thousands of Colorado parents without a public school option that works for their child.

Among those misconceptions is that online education somehow is a threat to traditional (sometimes called brick-and-mortar) schools, supposedly encroaching on their students and resources. But quite the opposite is true.

While online school enrollment has grown substantially—precisely because it does serve such a critical need—it nonetheless accounts for less than 2 percent of all public school students in Colorado. In other words, online enrollment is barely a blip on the curve in terms of the overall fiscal status of public education.

At the same time, online education has provided a relief valve for traditional schools that could not meet some students’ needs for a wide range of reasons—from students whose schools were unable to challenge them sufficiently to students who were at risk of falling through the cracks. Put another way, the 15,249 students enrolled in online programs in Colorado last year simply were not being served adequately by conventional public schools.

Moreover, a substantial number of older online students no longer would be in school at all if it weren’t for the online option. That means online education not only creates no burden on conventional public schools, but it also serves as a boon to all of society by keeping potential dropouts academically engaged.

Another unfortunate misconception is that online education has lacked oversight in Colorado. In fact, public online schooling has been the subject of extensive legislation, review and oversight by the Colorado General Assembly as well as the State Board of Education for more than a decade. In 2006, the State Auditor’s Office conducted a top-to-bottom audit of K-12 online education at the behest of the legislature, and the following year, a commission assembled by the Donnell-Kay Foundation issued recommendations in response to the audit.

A particularly frustrating misconception—one being reinforced inadvertently by some of the media coverage in the face of another potential audit—is that brick-and-mortar schools don’t face some of the same challenges as online schools in keeping underperforming students engaged. That’s an ongoing challenge whether before or after “count day.” And let’s not forget that while online schools draw some of the best and brightest, they also work with some of the most at-risk students—again, those whom conventional schools typically could not reach in the first place.

Online learning is not for every student, and some families choose the online model and later leave the program for a traditional classroom learning model. For example, I’ve seen families leave for economic reasons if the stay-at-home parent/learning coach needs to return to work. Other families may move out of state. Some students struggle with the rigorous curriculum, especially students who lack the self-motivation necessary to complete courses.

But there are many fulfilled upward-bound students at Colorado’s cyberschools who finally have found an educational program that fosters achievement and success. A wealth of research data attests to the value of online education and its almost singular ability to reach an array of children, including those with special needs and medical conditions; those who are struggling in conventional classrooms as well as advanced learners; students who have been victims of bullying and violence; children from military families and other households that move frequently; the list goes on.

For the sake of thousands of Colorado children for whom online schooling is the right fit—and, from the parent perspective, the most assured route to scholastic success, we must look at the big picture of Colorado’s educational landscape and see the many ways that this choice in public education makes a meaningful difference.

About our First Person series:

First Person is where Chalkbeat features personal essays by educators, students, parents, and others trying to improve public education. Read our submission guidelines here.

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