Many students going back to school this fall will not return to traditional classrooms. State budget cuts, which threaten to decrease the quality of a public school education, have prompted some parents to seek alternative or supplementary ways to keep their children learning. With private school beyond most people’s financial reach, parents nationwide are now enrolling their children in K-12 public school courses—online.

At least 20 states now have tuition-free, accredited virtual middle and high school programs that offer residents the opportunity get a high school diploma without ever entering an actual classroom. And the trend is growing fast, according to Allison Powell, vice president of the International Association for K-12 Online Learning (iNACOL). These virtual schools are funded by the states through public school funds, and have the full array of 6th-12th grade requirements for graduation, from English to Science to Math, all taught through the computer. Because of the low-operating costs, many schools are looking to add more online courses as an alternative to traditional classroom instruction.

Over a million students will be attending virtual classrooms this school year. Most will be taking only individual courses to enhance learning in a specific subject, or to obtain additional credits for graduation. Most states have some online, tuition-free, accredited K-12 courses, and all states have private learning providers offering fully accredited programs to choose from. Tuition for private online schools run anywhere from $10,000 to $35,000 for a high school diploma. Many even provide physical graduation ceremonies at local hotels or other public venues.

Online or ‘virtual classrooms’ use the Internet, and a cable or broadband network to deliver their content. Courses generally have no live meetings in which students and teachers meet as a class. Students are taught with relevant videos, photos, and reading, along with either a voice-over component of the instructor, or an actual classroom taping. Like traditional classes, homework is given and students must submit their assignments on time. Class credit is not only awarded for completed assignments and passing tests, but for participating in group projects and contributing to class discussions.

While face-to-face interaction between the student and the teacher is not part of the class, these courses make up for it by offering accessibility to course material 24/7. Teachers are state-certified and given trained to offer information in a multi-media format with interactive applications.

So, what type of student is best suited for an online education? Dave Holscher of Insight Schools says today’s virtual students are “literally as varied as today’s high school students.” That said, best suited are:

  • Students looking to supplement class credits, or strengthen their college preparedness.
  • Students seeking additional tutoring or alternate teaching approaches in subjects that challenge them.
  • Students uncomfortable in the conventional school environment due to excessive bullying or safety concerns.
  • Students requiring personalized learning programs to help them excel.
  • Students in need of a flexible leaning schedule due to additional responsibilities such as a child, or an career in the arts, sports or other fields.
  • Students who’ve dropped out, fallen behind, or are failing in the traditional school system.

An online education for your child should be considered with care and may not be for everyone. John Mussman graduated in June from Northside College Prep High School, a selective enrollment Chicago Public School, where he took online courses in economics, physics, and French. “I consider myself a pretty motivated student. Online classes, you have to be at least somewhat self-motivated. One pitfall students could fall into is [not] keeping up with the work on a day-to-day basis and letting it pile up.”

While there is little data available on the graduation rates for these online programs, many states are reporting high scores on exit exams for online students. A recent study by The Center for Research in Educational Policy (CREP) at the University of Memphis concludes that the social skills of students enrolled in full-time, online public schools are superior to or not significantly different than students enrolled in traditional public schools. One thing is clear: virtual education is a growing trend. And, it might offer your child a educational boost in a cash-deprived education system.