Caroline sat in her third grade class, lost.
Struggling both academically and socially in her traditional public school, she had trouble retaining information and was falling behind her peers. Her mother said the family has a history of learning disabilities.
"We just felt she needed the one-on-one with me or a teacher," she said, with Caroline, now in the sixth grade, sitting beside her.
Caroline’s mother pulled Caroline out of her traditional brick-and-mortar school and enrolled her in the new Virginia Virtual Academy. Republican Gov. Bob McDonnell had signed legislation earlier in 2010 creating an online option for public schooling. Cynthia said she thought it could be a better option for Caroline.
Cynthia described her daughter’s transition at a school choice rally on Wednesday, Jan. 30, in Richmond, Va. Public School Options, a nonprofit coalition of parents dedicated to improving the range of options in the public school system, hosted the event as part of National School Choice Week.
About 75 parents and children rallied in support of state-provided alternatives to public schools. They were also on hand to lobby their state legislators on behalf of the virtual school option and stand against a bill that would undermine the virtual school system.
The original 2010 bill required the Virginia Department of Education to create regulations for "multi-division providers of online courses and virtual school programs." The bill called for the creation of virtual schools that would extend beyond traditional school district boundaries (hence "multi-division"), giving students and parents more choices in their education.
"A child's educational opportunities should be determined by her intellect and work ethic, not by her zip code," McDonnell said when the bill was signed.
McDonnell’s legislation led to the creation of the Virginia Virtual Academy: VAVA for short. K12, a for-profit business that creates online curricula, contracted with several school districts in Virginia to set up VAVA, a fully accredited public school that enrolls students statewide.
VAVA is one of 18 multi-division online providers approved by the state department of education and is one of the biggest and most comprehensive.
"It’s not just sitting your kids in front of a computer," said Lindsay Woods, a teacher at VAVA who had previous experience in a traditional brick-and-mortar school. "It’s not just homeschooling. It’s actual public school, from home, with the guidance of certified professionals."
"We adhere to the same standards of learning that are set by the commonwealth," Woods said, noting that the same standardized tests must be passed by VAVA students.
The enrollment process also mirrors traditional public schools, said Suzanne Sloane, VAVA’s head of school. Students provide proof of Virginia residency, immunization documents, and free and reduced school lunch documentation. (The students do not receive free lunches, Sloane said; the federal government just requires this documentation from all public schools.)
There are consequences if students fail to log in for classes during which they interact with teachers and students.
"That’s truancy," Sloane said, in a firm voice befitting a school principal.
Students do their work at home under the supervision of a "learning coach," often a parent or grandparent. However, the student can also reach their teachers when they are struggling with material.
Abdu Muhammad, a parent of four, said VAVA was more structured than the private school his children were attending. Other parents said the certified teachers and set curriculum VAVA provides make it easier than traditional homeschooling.
Parents at the event received a packet that contained not only the day’s itinerary and worksheets for students but also flyers parents could give their representatives encouraging them to oppose SB 1300.
SB 1300 had two features that undermined the multi-division access to school choice that McDonnell’s bill set up, said Chris Whyte, Virginia coalition manager for Public School Options.
Whyte said the bill restricts students’ options based on their zip code and sets a 10-month registration deadline before the beginning of school. These two provisions, Whyte said, would make it harder for students to enroll in the best schooling option for them.
Virginia state Sen. George Barker, a Democrat, sponsored SB 1300 and said it sought to reform the state’s funding mechanism for virtual education.
"We right now have a bizarre system in terms of funding full time virtual schools," Barker told the Free Beacon. "It actually costs less, but we pay more."
Education funds from the state of Virginia are tied to the tax base in the school district, Barker explained. Districts with a strong local tax base receive fewer state dollars while those with a weak tax base receive more.
"What happens is the entities, the corporations—it’s basically private corporations setting up these virtual schools—they go approach the school boards in a jurisdiction that is at the extreme end of the scale," Barker said, citing Carroll County. The state pays between 75 and 80 percent of Carroll’s education costs, Barker said.
Most VAVA students register through Carroll County, a rural county in southwestern Virginia. Virginia has only four brick-and-mortar charter schools spread throughout the state, making virtual education one of the only public schooling options students have.
K12 receives all of its funding from the state—none from the local districts—and the state has capped the number of students who may enroll in virtual education at 10 percent of the contracting district’s total.
Carroll County has about 4,000 students, which means the county’s virtual academy, run by K12, is allowed to enroll 400 students total, Sloane said. King and Queen County, which is about a quarter the size of Carroll County, has also contracted with K12, bringing the total number of students in VAVA to about 500.
However, the vast majority of the students in VAVA do not live in either Carroll or King and Queen: VAVA pulls students from 87 different school districts and only about 15 are from Carroll County.
Barker said the net result of this system is a higher cost to the state.
His bill encouraged each school district to provide some form of virtual schooling for the students, which would keep the students in their own school district.
"What we’re trying to do is to set it up so that each school division accepts its responsibility to provide a full range of options, including full time virtual schooling, to its students," Barker said. Districts could produce their own virtual options or contract with outside entities or other districts to provide a virtual option.
He emphasized that the options available to students under his system make virtual schooling equivalent to traditional schooling in that students cannot leave their home school district.
"In this particular instance, he just very much believes that the county owns the child," Whyte said about Barker after his remarks to the parents and students about the bill.
When asked if the bill’s critics were wrong in saying that his bill restricts school choice, Barker said, "Well, no."
Barker withdrew his bill after the day of lobbying by parents and students.
Barker’s attempt to restrict the options available to students runs against a broader trend within public education toward greater student choice.
"I really think that we’re almost at a tipping point for school choice," said Lindsey Burke, an education expert at the Heritage Foundation.
Arizona has created education savings accounts in which parents can receive 90 percent of the state’s cost for that student to apply toward other school options, she said.
The District of Columbia, Indiana, and Louisiana all have what Burke called "traditional voucher programs" while Virginia, Florida, and New Hampshire have implemented a tuition tax credit program. McDonnell signed the tuition tax credit into law in 2012.
"We’re really seeing a proliferation of options," Burke said.
Burke said virtual education is providing even more flexibility and choices to parents and students. Students can take a single class online or enroll full-time in a virtual school, she said, expanding their education options.
"You can really imagine a day when parents have complete control over their education options," she said, calling online education "part of that equation."
Burke said education choice has improved high school graduation rates. She cited a Department of Education study that showed a 21 percent jump in the graduation rates between those who used school vouchers in the District of Columbia and the control group.
Sol Stern, an education policy expert at the Manhattan Institute and author of Breaking Free: Public School Lessons and the Imperative of School Choice, said school choice fulfills a basic "human desire" but expressed some reservation about Burke’s data. He noted that school choice has improved some indicators such as graduation rate and parent satisfaction, but he argued that the effects of school choice on academic performance itself are unclear.
The impact of virtual education was very tangible for Cynthia and her daughter Caroline, however.
"She’s excelling very well and doing much better," Cynthia said.