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Senate Committee monitoring progress of ‘virtual schools’

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TWC News: Senate Committee monitoring progress of ‘virtual schools’
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The Senate Committee on Education heard testimony on so-called "virtual schools" Monday.

It’s a program that takes students out of a classroom and puts them in front of a computer screen. The project is designed to allow students to work at their own pace, and supporters say it's a good resource for students who struggle in school.

It also lets more advanced students take classes that might not be available in their districts.

'It is a valuable tool we just need to learn how to use it to the best of its abilities," Senate Committee on Education Chair Florence Shapiro said.

Numbers show the programs are quickly growing. Enrollment has sky rocketed about 3,500 percent in the last six years — from 171 students to more than 6,000.

"Public education as a whole is going online and going virtual," Barbara Smith with the Texas Virtual Schools Network said.

The nonprofit Raise Your Hand Texas preformed an independent review of the programs. They found quality is not necessarily following the quantity of students, and there was poor student performance at many virtual schools providers.

According to its research, the on-time graduation rate for the virtual school was 49.1 percent compared to 79.4 percent in traditional schools.

"Quality control is very important," Sen. Shapiro said. "You always want to make sure that they are meeting the accountability standards that the classroom has today, you don't want to short change that you want to make sure that they are meeting the same standards."

The State Board of Education oversees the curriculum requirements. Education Chair Barbara Cargill says it’s a program that some admit is far from perfect.

"The same rigor and excellence that we expect in our public classroom would be expected from virtual schools online, that is the expectation and it is a high expectation and I think it is an expectation the virtual schools will fulfill," she said.

While the program may need some tweaks, officials say it won’t be going away.

"Online learning is taking place, we’re never going to be able to take that online learning and put it back in the bottle and cover it again. Now we need to learn how to live with it, deal with it and utilize it," Sen. Shapiro said.

The Virtual School Network was authorized by the Texas Legislature in 2007.

There is a fee to take high school classes online, but scholarships are available.

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