In Houston, a virtual academy or virtual vouchers?

Texas has launched an online instruction course for grade-schoolers called the Texas Virtual Academy,

Texas has launched an online instruction course for grade-schoolers called the Texas Virtual Academy, the Houston Chronicle reports. The first of five pilot programs is up and running through the Southwest School, a Houston-area charter school. Four other school districts are expected to start their pilots shortly.

The program uses tax dollars to pay for the academies, and the Southwest School has hired William J. Bennett's company, K12, to manage the program. The school pays the company about 80 percent of the $4,750 in state funding it receives per student.

That leads some people to call the virtual academy nothing less than "virtual vouchers," given the fact that Bennett was a key proponent of the voucher scheme.

"This is, more or less, subsidies to home schoolers to make money when the program has no proven benefits and high costs," said Karen Miller, a resident of the Cypress-Fairbanks district who has testified against virtual school legislation in the past five years.

But advocates say the quality of the program should put to rest all such concerns.

"There's no question it can be done very well," said Kate Loughrey, director of distance learning for the Texas Education Agency. "I think online learning holds a great deal of promise for the state of Texas."

Janelle James, chief operating officer of the Southwest School, said her school's program has built-in accountability such as state-required testing and end-of-course exams.

"This is not home school," she said. "There's a whole lot that's different."

The Chronicle profiles one enrolled student, 8-year-old Brian Reynolds. Brian says he enjoys the program but misses his friends. That's an issue of concern for some educators.

Brock Gregg, governmental relations director for the Association of Texas Professional Educators, said he worries about how this type of impersonal schooling will affect children.

"We'll be watching very closely," he said. "It may work, but I think we should move very slowly and not expand this program until we can prove the young children learn just as quickly and just as well this way."

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