Virtual high schools’ success highlights value of ed choice

Written by Derek Monson

June 10, 2022

The growth and success of virtual high schools gained recent news coverage from The Salt Lake Tribune. The story focused primarily on Kings Peak High School – a recently launched virtual high school with 250 full-time and 2,000 part-time students in Jordan School District.

It’s one of three virtual learning schools in the district; the other two are Rocky Peak Elementary School and Kelsey Peak Middle School. This year, Kings Peak graduated its first senior class of 48 students.

A second school highlighted in the story is Mountain Heights Academy, a virtual charter high school in Utah. Before the pandemic its enrollment was 800 students, which spiked to 1,300 students during the pandemic. Its growth seems to have settled a bit with the return of in-person schooling, and it has enrolled more than 1,000 students for the 2022-2023 academic year.

The story describes various ways in which virtual schools serve certain students better than in-person school ever could. The situations highlighted in the story include health conditions that preclude in-person school; students with young children of their own; students needing to work full time to help support parents; and students who “could not handle sitting in a classroom all day long.” Virtual schools allow students in such situations the opportunity to work at their own pace – and at the times that fit their needs – and help them gain stronger connections with teachers than they would otherwise. They also give educators more information about student learning than would be possible in the traditional approach to in-person learning.

Of course, virtual school isn’t going to work for everyone. But as the Tribune story illustrates, the same can be said for in-person school. The same is also true for home schools, public charter schools and private schools.

And that fact is what makes education choice so necessary and so valuable. Education choice flows logically from the practical reality of the normal and healthy differences among the children and families highlighted and noted in the Tribune story.

This is why it’s so important for state and local education policy to increase practical access to types of education other than traditional, in-person learning in district schools. Unless we take the position that a family’s income should ultimately dictate whether their children can access the best education option available, then this access must also include taxpayer-financed assistance – where family income dictates a compelling need – to help pay for private or home school.

Some people maintain an ideological commitment against tax dollars going to private schools – especially religious schools. This commitment prevents them from supporting policies that would help children who could thrive in a private school, but whose family income is insufficient to make private school accessible.

But for those who ground their policy and political thinking in facts, evidence and reality, the practical case for supporting education choice policies is right there in The Salt Lake Tribune. The education choice policy menu is much broader than is typically discussed – including expanding public school open enrollment; supporting the creation and adequate funding of public charter schools; providing education savings accounts that help a family pay for private or home school; and establishing tax credit or voucher programs that help families with financial need pay for private school. Supporting one or several education choice policy ideas does not require support for all of them.

But it is difficult to reasonably maintain, based on fact and real-world evidence, that traditional, in-person instruction at the neighborhood school is the best or will work well for every student. Reconciling that practical fact with ideological thinking and partisan commitments is what often generates controversy in education policy debates.

Perhaps the growth and success of virtual schools in Utah point toward a day when we will be able to accept the practical realities and ethical implications of the natural differences between students and how they learn, and then enact policies that reflect those realities. Time will tell.

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