Going to School Online: Better Education, Lower Cost?

Photo (cc) by San José Library

Once, low-income parents who worried about bullying, sex, and drugs in public schools were just out of luck. They couldn’t afford private schools, and home schooling might not have provided the same level of education for their kids.

But technology is shaking things up again – this time for families with elementary and high school students. Online charter schools are replacing the brick-and-mortar classrooms we grew up with for more than 200,000 students this year, according to Bloomberg’s Businessweek. One company called K12 accounts for 40 percent of those kids, and their model is taxpayer-funded: 27 states offer the program from home as a free alternative to public education.

In the video below, Money Talks News founder Stacy Johnson shows how K12 is working for one happy family – check it out, and then read on to figure out whether you should try it.

As the video showed, the Barnes family is pretty happy with the program after seven years, and the kids spend less time on school work than they would in a traditional setting. But it’s certainly not for everyone. Here are some things to consider before pulling your kid out of the classroom:

1. Availability.

Obviously the first concern is whether the program is available in your state.

According to K12’s list, it’s available to students in 29 states and Washington, D.C., although most New England states are not yet participating. It’s shorter to provide a list of states where this program is not available:

Alabama Connecticut Delaware Iowa Kentucky Maine
Maryland Mississippi Missouri Montana Nebraska New Hampshire
New Jersey New Mexico New York North Carolina North Dakota Rhode Island
South Dakota Vermont West Virginia

2. Supplies.

While “tuition” is subsidized by taxpayers, most traditional school supplies are not covered, so there’s still out-of-pocket expense for pencils, paper, and books. While some school districts can loan a computer or printer, not all do – so those and Internet access may also be cost factors. On the other hand, you save on gas and maybe some back-to-school clothes shopping.

3. Your time commitment.

According to K12, the program employs state-certified teachers, but parents are considered “learning coaches” who keep students on track and make sure they’re actually doing the work instead of surfing the Web or watching TV all day. K12 says, “Parents of children in grades K-6 can expect to spend 3-5 hours per day supporting their child’s education.” They add that middle school requires about two hours per day, and high school kids can manage their time independently. (Yeah, right.)

4. Personality.

The program offers flexible pacing, so it may work for both struggling students and accelerated learners who get bored easily. But it may not be best suited for kids who are easily distracted and need more supervision than normal, kids who need a lot of motivation and encouragement to learn, or those who can’t stand being in front of a computer for long periods. K12’s FAQ says K-5 students do “about 20-30 percent of the work online,” while higher grades spend even more time with computers.

5. Lessons and testing.

Most states have implemented some form of standardized testing required to graduate. Businessweek reported that, at least in Pennsylvania, K12 students have done worse on assessments than public school students.

If you’re concerned about whether K12’s curriculum covers what your kids need, they showcase a lot of sample lessons.

K12 isn’t the only online charter school out there; it’s just one of the biggest. For other options organized by state, check out About.com’s List of Free Online Public Schools. And if you enjoy being self-taught as an adult, look at our story Free College Education, on iTunes?

Disclosure: The information you read here is always objective. However, we sometimes receive compensation when you click links within our stories.

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