updated 1/17/2008 8:55:22 PM ET 2008-01-18T01:55:22

Seventh-grader Marcy Thompson cried when she heard that a court had ordered the state to stop funding the virtual school she has attended for the last five years.

The ruling, the first of its kind in the U.S., placed the Wisconsin Virtual Academy at the center of a national policy debate after critics raised a key question: Do virtual schools amount to little more than home schooling at taxpayer expense?

School districts across the country are closely watching the case, which could force the academy to close and help determine the future of online education.

"It's a great education option for lots and lots and lots of people, and they need to save it," said Marcy, who is among more than 90,000 students from kindergarten through high school enrolled in virtual schools nationwide.

Virtual schools operate in 18 states, according to the North American Council for Online Learning, a trade association based in Virginia.

Supporters say the schools are a godsend for parents who prefer that their children learn from home. But opponents, including the nation's largest teachers' union, insist the cyber charter schools drain money from traditional schools.

Marcy, 12, was home schooled through second grade, then began attending virtual classes in third grade.

The academy, the state's largest virtual school with 800 students, is based 30 miles north of Milwaukee. But Marcy spends her days at her home in Cross Plains, 130 miles away, studying a curriculum provided by the school district.

"People are paying attention because online learning is really a growing phenomenon," said Susan Patrick, president of the North American Council for Online Learning, a trade association. "And for us to arbitrarily shut down online learning for students is a really dangerous precedent to set."

Virtual schools lean on parental lead
Virtual schools generally require parents to lead daily lessons. Licensed teachers monitor students' progress through e-mails, online classes and tutoring.

But students do not spend their whole day in front of a computer. Marcy does homework, takes interactive online lessons about once a week and is a member of a math club that meets in person.

Last month, the state appeals court ordered the state to stop funding the academy, ruling that parents were the primary educators — a violation of a state law requiring public school teachers to be licensed.

And, the three-judge panel said, districts that operate virtual schools cannot receive taxpayer money for students who do not attend classes within their boundaries, the court said.

The decision could shut down other Wisconsin virtual schools, which enroll a total of 3,000 students. Marcy's school, which would be the first to close, will at least finish this school year while the ruling is appealed.

Opposition to program funding
Barbara Stein of the National Education Association, the teachers' union, objected to the use of tax dollars to support what she called a new form of home schooling.

"The issue is whether a program where you don't have licensed educators and where you don't have students working directly with other students should be getting fully funded as though it were a quality educational experience," she said.

Lawmakers from both parties say they want to keep the virtual schools open, but they have been unable to agree on the details.

Republican state Rep. Brett Davis said Wisconsin has the chance to become a national leader in online learning.

"The bottom line is it's time to modernize education laws in Wisconsin," Davis said. "We have these great virtual schools that are doing well. I think we've become a model for the country to look at."

Gov. Jim Doyle would have to review whatever bill may pass before commenting, spokesman Matt Canter said.

Marcy says she loves her school, and it shows: She wears a hat and uses pens emblazoned with the Wisconsin Virtual Academy logo. On Wednesday, she joined hundreds of other students at a rally at the Capitol in Madison, where they urged lawmakers to keep the schools open. Her mother, Julie Thompson, said learning from home is a better option for her daughter because she is easily distracted. Marcy agrees and says she prefers the online interaction with teachers and students to the isolation of home schooling.

"We've looked at all the different school possibilities, and we know this one is the best for me," she said.

Copyright 2008 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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