Virtual education brings schools home - East Valley Tribune: East Valley Local News

Virtual education brings schools home

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Posted: Saturday, September 6, 2008 8:51 pm | Updated: 11:40 pm, Fri Oct 7, 2011.

High school math teacher Dan Tucker no longer has to worry about whether a student's midriff is showing or another one can have bathroom privileges. And now, with his only commute being the one along the Internet's information superhighway, he has been known on occasion to work in his pajamas from his rural Catalina home.

While other students are groggily getting ready for morning classes, high school senior Angie Ronquillo is off to work. Her school day, which largely takes place in the bedroom of her Rio Rico home, won't start until after most other students already are home.

The two are big boosters of the brave new world of virtual education, touted as a way to fix some long-standing education bugaboos and allow students to design their own educational experiences.

Arizona has been operating schools without walls for a decade now, with almost 27,500 students last year attending programs approved in seven districts and seven charter schools.

The biggest action is in the charter schools - the largest, Primavera Technical Learning Center, reported 8,000 students last year. Tucker and Ronquillo's school, Arizona Virtual Academy, run by K12 Inc., has 4,600 students in the state this year, with about 2,000 of them in Tucson.

Four years into it, the Tucson Unified School District program has about 600 students signed up for online learning.

Stuart Baker, the district's principal of distance learning, said students likely will experience some form of online learning in postsecondary education, so early exposure is helpful.

"Virtual education is the wave of the future. It's exploding everywhere, and it's being looked to as a real way to deliver education quickly and efficiently to kids all over the world," Baker said. "I don't know what form it will take ultimately, but it's not going away."

Seventeen-year-old Ronquillo sees no downside to the choice she made in her sophomore year to go wholly online. It allows her to work full time, and while she initially was wary of computers, she now considers herself solidly technologically literate.

But even as their popularity grows, online programs are raising questions among some observers who are looking for greater accountability and are squeamish about sinking tax dollars into for-profit ventures.

A recent auditor general report shows there is indeed room for improvement on the accountability front.

Auditors found that in 2006, the state overpaid by about $6.4 million because of funding errors, partly because schools were receiving full payment even when students split their time with conventional bricks-and-mortar classes. Auditors also found the schools as a whole were inconsistent in reporting expenditures, making it difficult to compare costs and evaluate cost-effectiveness.

David Safier, a Tucson blogger and a retired teacher, is critical of K12, which reported in its latest quarterly filing with the Securities and Exchange Commission that it has more than 42,000 students in 17 states. The latest prospectus showed more than 10 percent of revenue - reported at $141 million in fiscal year 2007 - came from the Arizona operations.

Safier broke the news on his blog that K12 had outsourced grading to India, a practice the provider has discontinued.

Safier accuses the company of breaching the trust of parents and students. He said he isn't convinced that the Indian workers, who weren't subject to fingerprinting, didn't have access to student data, although a K12 spokeswoman said the data were scrubbed of identifying details.

Safier also has concerns about quality, fretting that some online providers, using what he dubs "lesson plans in a can," are flirting with replacing teachers altogether.

"There's this ideal out there that if you can teacher-proof education, you've reached nirvana," he said. "If you aren't paying the costs of bricks and mortar and attendance clerks and counselors, that reduces a huge cost in running a school. You can't convince me that the costs are equal."

Mary Gifford, a K12 regional vice president, who said teachers still had the final word on grading, said few actually used the outsourcing service, but it was available because the school commits to returning graded essays within three days. This year the company is using two highly qualified Arizona English teachers to review essay drafts.

John Wright, president of the Arizona Education Association, has reservations. While he sees value in online courses, he applauds states such as North Carolina and Kansas for setting up strict controls on how and what the schools teach.

"Where you get into trouble is that in Arizona, the philosophy on regulation is very libertarian, and it's more about letting the market meet the need and create innovation. But what you get are for-profit shops setting up that are much more interested in the bottom line," Wright said.

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