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Last modified: Monday, June 23, 2008

While innovations in virtual learning accelerate growth, regulatory issues must be addressed

New CEEP policy brief addresses issues surrounding “cyber schools” in Indiana and the nation

June 23, 2008

BLOOMINGTON, Ind. -- States should develop clear guidelines and policies to allow virtual education to succeed and avoid possible litigation, according to a policy brief from the Center for Evaluation and Education Policy at the Indiana University School of Education.

The report, "Promises and Pitfalls of Virtual Education in the United States and Indiana," examines the emergence of virtual education as a potentially viable public education tool and notes its value in reaching both low- and high-achieving students that schools may overlook because of the focus on meeting state and federal accountability requirements.

The release of the report comes as an interim study committee of the Indiana state legislature begins examining virtual schools, which are not currently covered by state laws or regulations in Indiana.

"There really is an unfettered regulatory environment that governs virtual education," said Terry Spradlin, associate director for education policy at CEEP. "Some equate virtual learning to the 'Wild West' of public education."

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The Center for Evaluation and Education Policy is recommending guidelines and policies for virtual schools, which deliver the majority of their course content online.

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Spradlin co-authored the report, along with Michael Holstead, CEEP graduate research assistant, and Jonathan Plucker, CEEP director and professor of Educational Psychology and Cognitive Science.

Virtual schools deliver the majority of their course content online. Full-time virtual schools allow students to take all classes online. Supplemental virtual programs provide online courses in addition to those that students take in their own schools. Programs offering virtual classes in Indiana include the Indiana Online Academy, Indiana Virtual Academy, and Indiana University High School.

The Indiana General Assembly ordered an interim study committee to examine virtual schools after lawmakers rejected funding for two cyber charter schools sponsored through Ball State University in 2007. Cost estimates for funding the schools through the state charter school funding system ranged from $11 million to $50 million per year, a "real eye-opener" for lawmakers, Spradlin said. The legislature placed a two-year moratorium on funding virtual charter schools.

While state law has not caught up to online learning yet, the study authors say many of the 42 states with some sort of public online learning program have taken steps Indiana can learn from.

"A lot of other states around the country have been dealing with this same issue and have been updating legislation and regulation policies," Holstead said. He added that large states like Florida and Michigan have introduced policies worth examining. Of those 42 states with virtual schools, 18 states have virtual charter schools.

The programs offer the possibility of customized education for students, Spradlin said, but all states are grappling with the issues such a program also presents, such as whether teachers should be certified and determining what level of training they receive as pre-service teachers. Funding such schools has also been challenging for states, Spradlin said, noting that virtual schools are grappling with the legal issues of charging fees while local school districts worry about receiving reimbursement from the state. Further, there are questions about quality and oversight as well as student accountability, and how well students can function without socializing with other students.

The authors offer eight recommendations:

  • Virtual school course offerings meet or exceed Indiana state standards. Spradlin said the existing programs already do meet or exceed standards, but it should be a "blanket requirement."
  • The Indiana State Board of Education approves all virtual school course offerings. "When school districts offer a course, it must meet an approved course title by the state board of education," Spradlin said. "That should hold true for the virtual programs as well."
  • Professional development regarding teaching an online course be required for pre-service teachers or veteran instructors who want to begin online teaching.
  • Full licensure requirements for teachers who provide instruction in a virtual classroom and school.
  • Students meet the same graduation requirements of any Indiana public school student.
  • The state creates a specific funding mechanism for virtual charters, other full-time virtual programs, and reimbursement for the completion of supplemental virtual programs.
  • The state commissions the evaluation of virtual school effectiveness using assessment data. "There really is a lack of adequate research or evidence-based research that validates the effectiveness of virtual learning," Spradlin said. "So moving forward, that is absolutely necessary."
  • All Indiana students complete at least one online course to graduate from high school, a requirement in Michigan. More than 2.5 million college students take online courses annually, Spradlin said. "Since that's the case, it might make sense for our Indiana high school graduates to also have at least one online course completed."

Spradlin said passing some sort of regulation covering virtual schools is necessary, since the moratorium on cyber charters is about to expire.

"So the legislature really does need to take action to say once and for all whether cyber charter schools are going to be permitted," he said, noting that it's likely to happen in the upcoming session. "Without it, the state or local jurisdictions are likely to face litigation."

The full report may be viewed at:

CEEP promotes and supports rigorous program evaluation and policy research primarily, but not exclusively, for education, human services and non-profit organizations. Its research uses both quantitative and qualitative methodologies. To learn more about CEEP, go to

Media Outlets: The following comments are available as mp3 files on the IU School of Education Web site at Look for this news release under "News" on the home page. The sound bites below will have a clickable link to hear and to save the files.

Spradlin says state lawmakers saw the need to examine virtual schools further based on cost estimates for two cyber charters during the 2007 legislative session:

"The idea that just two cyber charter schools would cost up to $16 million -- that was an eye opener, and the thought that for 10,000 online students in five, six years would cost Indiana $50 million, the Legislature, when it comes to that type of money, they really become skeptical and they want to slow things down and think about it for a while before they make that type of financial commitment. So we'll have to see, whether in 2009 during the budget session whether the environment is ripe for passage of explicit legislation which is dearly needed here in Indiana. Without it we're likely to face litigation."

Spradlin says requiring Indiana students to take an online course is good preparation for the future:

"The state of Michigan over the last couple of years implemented that requirement (completion of one online course) for their students graduating from Michigan high schools. So it makes perfect sense since we have such a high level of online course takings at the college level, at the post secondary level. I think an estimate was over 2.5 million college students take online courses annually. Since that is the case it might make sense for our Indiana high school graduates to also have at least one online course completed. I think that will benefit them for their experiences that they will face in college and in the workplace."

Holstead says Indiana is not alone in struggling with cyber school legislation, and it can learn from many other states:

"A lot of other states around the country have been dealing with this same issue and have been updating legislation and regulation policies; and in the big states, the states such as Florida and Michigan now that are really trying to kind of push forward with their virtual education have been trying to install various things that I think Indiana might want to look at for considering."