By Emily Leayman
In light of growing skepticism of virtual schools’ value, parents from 27 states gathered in Washington, D.C., this week to make sure lawmakers know that the increasingly controversial educational choice has helped many of them overcome seemingly insurmountable obstacles.
Stay-at-home mom Aley Minton’s 13-year-old son has dyslexia; he started fifth grade at the first-grade level. Since attending Michigan Connections Academy , a virtual public charter school, she said he has finished eighth grade on track for high school.
Her 11-year-old son has epilepsy, Tourette’s, and a severe food allergy. “He would have been held back on days missed alone due to his epilepsy. The sixth-grader just finished eighth-grade-level math and science through his virtual school. “He probably would have never been able to catch up on the work,” Minton told Watchdog.org.
Being at home means the two boys have more time with their father, a police officer.
The virtual school choice was clear for Tammy Thompson’s adopted children, who were diagnosed with post traumatic stress disorder after former guardians often left them alone and locked in closets for days. Going to school only made the situation worse. “They would have meltdowns, just start crying in school. They were being picked on,” Thompson told Watchdog.org. “There was just no other way around it. It just broke my heart.”
The North Carolina parents pulled their children out of school, but homeschooling became expensive for three girls. Then North Carolina Virtual Academy  became available. “They were bullied at school … and they were not learning,” said Thompson. “[Virtual school] works for our family because they are able to [learn] and we monitor it.”
Michigan mother Sandy Smith had first considered virtual school when she and her son were both diagnosed with cancer. At the time, virtual school was not available in the state. But after her eight-year-old son passed away the following year, the opportunity opened.
Her oldest child has moved on to college, but her 17-year-old daughter is in her final year at Great Lakes Cyber Academy . “We felt like they had a rough previous three years,” she told Watchdog.org. “We wanted to be involved, but we wanted them to have teachers. We wanted them to have testing. We wanted to know if they were doing OK.”
For families like the Mintons, school choice has given their children flexibility to complete school amid illnesses or family issues. “[My son] never got behind because we were able to adjust his schedule,” said Minton. We were able to do some work at two o’clock in the morning because that’s when he was awake and alert. Having the choice to do that gave everything to my children.”
According to August 2014 data, 135 virtual charter schools serve approximately 180,000 students in 23 states and D.C. That growth has come with more public scrutiny. A new report  concluded that virtual school students perform worse on academics than traditional school students. The National Charter Alliance for Public Charter Schools and National Association of Charter School Authorizers recommended policy solutions such as performance-based funding and closing low-performing schools.
The misconception of how virtual schools work is the biggest challenge for Thompson.
“I feel like they do not understand that my kids are not just sitting in front of computers all day,” she said. “We adhere to the public school rules, the public school testing. My tax dollars, which is their tax dollars, should follow the child.”
In virtual schooling, parents oversee their children’s completion of schoolwork.
Minton’s two boys interact with teachers and classmates through live online lessons; in homeschooling, the lesson plans would typically come from a parent (although prepared plans are widely available as well). Even if the children miss the lesson, a recording is available. “Most of the time they feel very confident and comfortable to email or call their teachers to ask them on their own without asking me,” she said.
Smith plays a minimal role too.
“I don’t have to be very involved because she is really independent,” she said.
Numerous lawmakers and staff members were able to put a face to their school choice support in Tuesday’s meetings.
Smith and Minton visited three offices and met Rep. John Moolenaar (R-Mich.), who has a background in charter school administration. “All three support us and support the choice of parents to make the decision in education for our children,” said Minton.
Meeting with staff for North Carolina Republican Sens. Richard Burr and Thom Tillis, a few of whom were homeschooled, encouraged the Thompson family. “They were all pro-parent options. I feel we’ve got a good strong pull for our team,” she said.
Online charters are not available everywhere.
Thirty-five of the 43 states with charter school laws allow virtual charters. Eight states with charter school laws– Delaware, Maryland, Massachusetts, New Jersey, New York, Rhode Island, Tennessee and Virginia — have none.
Funding inequities also factor in. “The biggest issue with [Michigan] is that the charter school students don’t get equal funding  to the traditional public school,” said Minton.
It’s up to parents, Smith said, to take charge.
“I think we have to be careful that parents aren’t taken out of the whole picture,” said Smith. “We need a seat at the table. We need to be the one’s who are making the decisions for our children.”