In light of the COVID-19 pandemic, which has driven regular public school instruction online, it’s reasonable for Maryland to reconsider its law that makes online charter schools illegal. It’s important to point out that the question of legality is a different question than whether virtual learning is, on average, as effective as in-person schooling. Even those who don’t want online education for their children can support the right of other parents to choose this option. The question is whether online charter schools should remain illegal for everyone in Maryland, including students who excel online.
There’s a good amount of research, such as Stanford’s CREDO study in 2015, that shows that fully online schooling tends to be less effective than in-person learning for most students. That finding contradicted a 2010 U.S. Department of Education analysis that showed an advantage for online students. K12.com, an online school, posted results from 2013-2014 for three of its online schools — the Texas Virtual Academy, Arizona Virtual Academy and Georgia Cyber Academy — that reduced the achievement gap for lower income students. In 2011, a study found that “blended learning” college classes which are partially online and in person, had better results than non-blended classes.
At this time there isn’t enough evidence to support outlawing online schooling. We don’t yet know what percentage of online time is optimal for most students and if this varies with age. Some students clearly benefit from these schools, while others do not. The same could be said about the regular public schools, brick-and-mortar charter schools, and just about any other approach to learning. What works for one student might not work for the next. Your mileage may vary.
Like brick-and-mortar schools, online schools vary in the quality of their curriculum, ease of use, and instructional techniques. Virtual schools often ship hands-on materials to their students in addition to their digital content. In addition to lesson plans designed for parents to teach to their children, online schools provide experienced teachers for instruction and tutoring. Virtual schooling doesn’t mean students spend hours in front of a computer without adult supervision or social interaction with other students. There are a variety of approaches, most of which retain elements of the traditional classroom.
Right now 22 states allow virtual charter schools. It’s hard to find a good reason for Maryland not to join them. Yes, a lot of evidence favors traditional schools. But having lower performance on average doesn’t justify outlawing the entire virtual school concept just as it wouldn’t make sense to outlaw all restaurants because of those that aren’t up to your standards and preferences. We certainly wouldn’t want to close public schools in favor of private schools even if private schools’ scores were higher in aggregate — or vice versa.
Research results are mathematical averages and useful for identifying trends, but in reality, students attend specific, actual schools. Parents ought to have the chance to try out virtual options and see which ones work for them. Now that learning has been pushed online, the advantages of having curricula available that were specifically designed for online learning becomes obvious. Just ask any teacher who has been forced to adapt their in-person lessons for the internet. This requires different approaches, materials and teacher training, which online charters have years of experience with.
The traditional concern among opponents of virtual schooling has been that online charter schools need to be held accountable for results. That’s a valid concern, but already covered by Maryland’s law, which requires charter schools meet the same or greater standards for staffing, academics, and fiscal responsibility as regular public schools. This includes Maryland’s testing program, which enables parents to compare results. Like all charter schools, online charters can be closed at any time for cause and they undergo annual reviews in addition to a lengthy evaluation prior to charter renewal. Regular public schools are not required to do this.
Maryland currently allows third-party providers such as Edgenuity, Florida Virtual School, and APEX to teach online high school courses. This is a wonderful opportunity for students to take classes that might not otherwise be available to them — learning to speak Japanese, for example — and helps students whose athletic or other pursuits require greater flexibility in scheduling that online courses offer. At a time when parents are wondering if and when regular school will begin and what options they’ll have if it doesn’t, it seems fair to say that allowing online charter schools in Maryland isn’t just an idea whose time has come. It’s truly needed.