WASHINGTON -- Online classes have exploded in popularity, with more than six times as many students enrolled in electronic K-12 courses now compared with a decade ago, according to the U.S. Department of Education.
Advocates say online classes offer a more flexible and personalized form of education, allowing students to progress at their own pace and on their own time. Supporters also tout online education as a way to dramatically expand course offerings, particularly at rural schools.
But the rapid growth of online education is raising concerns -- especially as more for-profit companies launch online programs. While unscrupulous or incompetent online educators may be rare, there are enough of them that many states are considering ratcheting up their oversight.
"The long and short of it is trying to make sure that as we grow this kind of education in the future, there is accountability for them like any other school," says Kelli Gauthier, a spokeswoman for Tennessee's education department.
States ran the earliest online programs, which began in the late 1990s. But individual districts and online charter schools are a growing percentage of the total. Many of the new programs are operated by for-profit companies, such as K12 Inc. and Connections Education. These companies supply everything from the curriculum to the technology to the teachers on the other end of students' computers.
Florida has nearly 150,000 online K-12 students -- more than any other state -- and the Florida Virtual School was the first state-run online school in the country. Florida is one of only four states requiring students to take an online course in order to graduate, and it allows students to go beyond their local areas and pick online courses from other districts across the state. But Florida doesn't have much staff charged with overseeing online education.
"Up until a couple of months ago, I was the virtual education office in the state," says Sally Roberts, who now has the assistance of another full-time worker. Others in Florida's education department do help Roberts vet potential course providers for a state-approved list of districts and charter schools.
Even with a robust staff, though, it can be hard for states to keep pace with rapid changes in the field, says John Watson, founder of the Evergreen Education Group, which puts out the annual "Keeping Pace with K-12 Online and Blended Learning" report. Watson says the challenge for states is striking a balance between encouraging innovation and holding online educators accountable.
"It's very difficult from a policy standpoint to catch that bad apple, while not impeding all the good actors," he says.
There are enough bad apples that some states feel a growing sense of urgency when it comes to determining the appropriate levels of accountability and oversight needed.