Virtual schools see numbers increase, along with questions
When home-school mom Sarah Chase needed to find a way to spend less time planning lessons for her three children and more time on field trips and science projects, she decided to switch to a publicly funded virtual academy.
“It was a difficult decision,” said Chase of Hereford. “I looked at it very thoroughly.”
Chase’s youngest child just finished third grade and the oldest recently completed eighth grade, and the family recently completed its second year in the online Texas Connections Academy, Chase said. She said the program has allowed her children to learn at their own pace, and she thinks they have advanced faster than they would have in a traditional public school.
A growing number of Texas families such as the Chases have decided to use virtual schools in recent years, but some groups such as Progress Texas, an Austin-based liberal think tank, argue the online alternatives to traditional public schools sidestep state accountability standards.
The Texas Education Agency rated the Texas Connections Academy academically unacceptable in 2011, according to agency data.
However, the academy has grown exponentially the past four years.
It began in 2008 with about 100 students and now enrolls about 3,000, said Sallie Benazzouz, a teacher for the academy.
The academy provides classes in grades three through 10, and it will soon expand to provide 11th-grade classes, she said.
Benazzouz said the academy previously provided students with all necessary school materials, including computers, free of charge. However, state budget cuts hit virtual schools the same as traditional public schools, Benazzouz said. The academy won’t provide computers for the upcoming year because it had to make budget cuts to account for the reduced state money, she said.
The academy will hold an information session June 27 at the Ambassador Hotel, 3100 W. Interstate 40, to meet with interested students and their families, Benazzouz said.
Because virtual schools are considered public schools, students must take state standardized tests and the school is held to the state accountability standards, Benazzouz said.
Phillip Martin, political director for Progress Texas, said virtual schools take advantage of the system to make money while using state funds that could go to traditional public schools and exploit loopholes in state law to sidestep accountability standards.
"It’s not being used right,” Martin said. “It’s being sold as a bill of goods that isn’t delivering.”
The Texas Virtual Academy is also one of the largest virtual schools in the state and could enroll as many as 6,000 students next year, according to the academy. It received an academically unacceptable rating by the Texas Education Agency in 2009 and 2011.