New Jersey's children are not lab rats. Their educations - and their futures - are too important to risk them on poorly thought out experiments.

So it was good news Monday when the Department of Education decided to delay approval of two virtual charter schools for a year. That time is needed to explore the effectiveness of such schools and set standards for them.

Virtual learning - taking interactive classes via computer - didn't exist when the state charter-school law was written in 1995. Because of that, some education groups say the state doesn't even have the legislative authority to approve such schools.

The funding formula in the 1995 law - students take 90 percent of their per-pupil funding with them when they attend a charter school within their district - certainly never envisioned these schools.

That was apparent last year, when state officials told the Teaneck school district it should put aside more than $15 million, almost one-fifth of its budget, to finance a proposed virtual charter school that would have a small office in the town. The school, which ultimately was not approved, could have drawn students from anywhere in the state, but because it was considered a Teaneck school, it would have thrown the local budget into disarray.

The state Assembly voted in June to put the virtual charter-school experiment on hold for a year. The Senate should also approve this bill, which would create a task force to look at research on the effectiveness of such schools and recommend curriculum standards and a funding formula.

That effectiveness is in some doubt. The National Education Policy Center issued a report this week that said students enrolled in Internet schools run by K12 Inc., the largest operator of virtual schools in the country and one of the companies seeking a charter in New Jersey, were falling behind students at brick-and-mortar schools in math and reading scores and graduation rates.

Proponents of virtual charters trumpet the benefits of online learning. It allows education to be geared to individual students and makes available specialized subjects that individual districts could not afford to provide. It can offer flexible schedules to serious athletes and allow those with chronic illnesses or social problems to continue their education.

Those are good arguments for Internet learning, but they don't mean it has to take place in the context of a full-time charter school. In fact, the New Jersey Virtual High School, run by the Monmouth-Ocean Educational Services Commission - which is also seeking approval to run a virtual school in New Jersey - already offers online classes to students from 400 middle schools and high schools in the state.

New Jersey's charter-school program is an imperfect work in progress. On Monday, the state set its first uniform standards for evaluating the success of existing charter schools. Standards for virtual schools ought to be in place before any students are enrolled.

Internet learning will certainly play a part in the future of education and likely will involve charter schools. But as we move into this new, virtual classroom, let's make sure we do it right.


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