DENVER -- More schoolchildren than ever are taking their classes online, using technology to avoid long commutes to school, add courses they wouldn't otherwise be able to take -- and save their school districts money.
But as states pour money into virtual classrooms, with an estimated 200,000 virtual K-12 students in 40 states from Washington to Wisconsin, educators are raising questions about online learning. States are taking halting steps to increase oversight, but regulation isn't moving nearly as fast as the virtual school boom.
The online school debate pits traditional education backers, often teachers' unions, against lawmakers tempted by the promise of cheaper online schools, and school-choice advocates who believe private companies will apply cutting-edge technology to education.
Is online education as good as face-to-face teaching?
Virtual education companies tout a 2009 research review conducted for the U.S. Department of Education that showed K-12 students did as well or better in online learning conditions as in a traditional classroom.
But critics say most studies, including many in that 2009 review, used results from students taking only some -- but not all -- of their courses online. They also point out wide gaps in state oversight to ensure students, and not their parents or tutors, are actually completing tests and coursework.
Still, virtual schooling at the K-12 level is booming. For example, one of the nation's largest for-profit online education providers, Virginia-based K12 Inc., saw its earnings more than double in the first quarter of this year, fueled in large part by a 42 percent enrollment spike.
"Online learning is the future of American education. Precisely because it's so transforming, it's threatening to the established institutions," said Terry Moe, a political scientist at Stanford University who studies the online school boom.
The conflict has boiled over in Colorado, which expects to spend $85 million this year educating some 14,200 students online. The state's online school industry is growing by double digits a year, bankrolled by a state government that pays private companies to teach students as young as kindergarten entirely via computer with limited oversight.
Online schools aggressively court new students in Colorado, where they are paid the same as brick-and-mortar schools. But so far the results have been discouraging.
A 2010 report by the state Department of Education showed below-average test scores, dropout rates near 50 percent in some cases and a student-to-teacher ratio as high as 317 to 1 at one school. Still, enrollment grew more than 12 percent between 2008 and 2009, and Colorado's online schools get paid for an entire school year even if a student drops out after Oct. 1, the date the state tallies student enrollment.
"I know there are millions of dollars being bled from the system that have no accountability tied to them," said Democratic Senate President Brandon Shaffer, whose requested an audit of online schools but was blocked by Republicans.
"If you're the person bringing this up, you're labeled anti-choice, anti-reform," Mr. Shaffer said.
An October report by the University of Colorado-based National Education Policy Center said school-choice advocates are pushing states to rush headlong into virtual K-12 education despite limited data.
"These online school providers are raking in hundreds of millions of dollars, and the product they're putting out is just horrible," said Gene Glass, author of the CU report and a vocal critic of public funding for online schools. But he said legislators see online schools as a cost-saver so states are moving forward.
Idaho and Florida passed laws in the last year requiring high school students to take at least one course online. Ohio lifted a moratorium on new "e-schools," and Utah passed a "virtual voucher" law allowing high school students to choose which courses to take online and which to take at a brick-and-mortar school.
Virtual learning can fill an important void for some students.
In Mims, Fla., 14-year-old Celestial McBride was homeschooled by her mother after third grade because the family traveled frequently. Now she takes courses from the public Florida Virtual School, where she studies at her own pace and expects to have a college-level associate's degree by the time she's 16.
"I think you learn faster online," said Miss McBride, who attends virtual "clubs" including the school's student newspaper, published online, of course.
"In a regular classroom, you could always have the kid who's a disruption," she said. "Online, there's no disruption."
McBride's mom, Nancy McBride, said that taking classes online allows her children to travel without falling behind.
"The misconception is that the teacher isn't there. Not true. The teacher's right there, and they're involved with my kids at every step," she said
Jazmyn Styles, a 17-year-old senior at Pike High School in Indianapolis, said she takes online courses during the summer to free up time during the regular school year for college credit courses and internships.
She said she's in regular contact with her online teacher through Skype, instant messaging, and email.
"I like working at my own pace. Because when you're in a normal classroom, the teacher can only work as quickly as the slowest student," she said.
What about the teachers?
Kristin Kipp, a high school teacher at Colorado's Virtual Academy in Jefferson County, said she worried about connecting with students one-on-one when she switched to an online setting, but found that she got to know her students more through their steady stream of texts, emails, and phone calls.
Ms. Kipp said teachers need to be proactive to maintain regular communication with students to help them succeed.
"My constant message in an online classroom is, 'I see you, I know you're there,' " she said. "So kids are constantly getting messages from me saying, 'Hey your grade went up 5 percent this week. Congratulations, keep up the hard work.' "
The nation's largest industry group for online schools, the Washington-based International Association for K-12 Online Learning, says states would be foolish to apply the brakes to online school expansion. Group CEO Susan Patrick pointed out that about one in three college students now take some courses online, and about 50 percent of workforce training is believed to be done online.
"The world has moved online, no question," Ms. Patrick said. "You have to ask, when did face-to-face learning become the gold standard for education?"
At the same time, the group says states need to do a better job overseeing online schools.
"You absolutely must have accountability, and in some cases, it's not there," Ms. Patrick said.
That's starting to change. The Utah law that expanded students' online school options also set new compensation rules for online schools -- they get half the money up front, but the rest only for those students who finish the courses. Florida also pays only for completed courses, not by students enrolled. Oregon set up a task force to come up with better governance for virtual schools, and Washington passed a 2009 law setting up an agency within the Department of Education to vet applicants wanting to set up online schools.
Wisconsin earlier this year became the first state to require 30 hours of additional training for online teachers.
"The majority of teachers still haven't learned to do this, and online education is a distinct skill," said Dennis O'Connor, who teaches online education for graduate students at the University of Wisconsin-Stout.
Mr. O'Connor, who teaches his Wisconsin graduate students from his home in San Diego, embraces online learning but notes, "There's no proof one way or the other at this point if a total online learning experience is a good thing or a bad thing," he said.
Mr. Moe, the Stanford professor, said that states holding back on virtual education are ignoring reality.
"Twenty years from now, a typical child will be going to a hybrid school," he said. "They'll be going to a physical location, but computers will do 80 percent of the teaching."