One component of education reform that often gets overlooked is online or virtual learning. In the August-September 2010 issue of Reason Magazine, Katherine Mangu-Ward notes the following:

During the last 30 years, the per-student cost of K-12 education has more than doubled in real dollars, with no academic improvement to show for it. Meanwhile, everything the Internet touches gets better: listening to music on iTunes, shopping for shoes at Zappos, exchanging photos on Flickr.

Education reformers across the nation are listening. In 2000, only 50,000 students were enrolled in online classes. Today, that number is over 1 million. Julie Young of Florida Virtual School (FLVS) set up a system to offer supplemental courses, not replace the curriculum of the public schools. Mangu-Ward explains:

Young doesn’t use the language of reform or revolution. Instead she talks about “doing what’s right for kids.” Yet Florida Virtual School’s model is, in its own way, revolutionary. The school employs 1,200 accredited, nonunion teachers, who are available by phone or email from 8 a.m. to 8 p.m., seven days a week. Kids take what they want, when they want.

K12 Inc., another innovative online education company, provides full-time instruction, allowing students from kindergarten through 12th grade to do their entire school year online.

Students in FLVS have been performing better than students in traditional public schools, surpassing them on both advanced placement tests and state standardized tests in math.

Another benefit of online learning is that it gives students who may not otherwise have the opportunity to go to school an opportunity to receive an education. For example, Dan Lips, former Heritage Foundation Education Policy Analyst , has noted that “virtual and blended-learning programs will enable mass customization in education, allowing students to learn at their own pace in ways that are tailored to their learning styles and interests.”

Unfortunately (and at the same time unsurprisingly), the teachers unions are opposed to giving this choice to parents and students. Mangu-Ward quotes the National Education Association’s official policy statement on charter schools:

There also should be an absolute prohibition against the granting of charters for the purpose of home-schooling, including online charter schools that seek to provide home-schooling over the Internet.

However, as noted by Mangu-Ward, citing Tom Vander Ark:

But “we’re a generation behind where we should be in terms of online tools, platforms and options—a state government caused market failure. Where competition is welcomed, we’ll see innovation.”

The best solution to see improved student performance anywhere in the country is to support policy options that promote parental choice in education. Virtual learning is connecting students to a new educational experience and should not go offline.

Michael Wille is a member of the Young Leaders Program at the Heritage Foundation. For more information on interning at Heritage, please visit: