ungraded trivia question and take attendance based on which students answer it.

"I can entertain questions and have them raise hands," Deschner said. "If I have a multiple-choice question with A, B, C and D sitting there, they can each choose an answer, and we can poll to see what people chose and talk about it."

However, a parent is usually a TXVA student's primary instructor. It may seem intuitive to think that parents lacking professional teaching backgrounds would produce lower-performing students. But kids who learn from their parents at home perform better than students in brick-and-mortar schools, according to Home Schooling: From the Extreme to the Mainstream, a study conducted by the Canada-based Fraser Institute. It reports that 25 percent of homeschooled students perform one or more grade levels above their public- and private-school counterparts.

More surprisingly, the study asserts that homeschooled students taught by poorly educated parents perform better than public school students with similar parents.

"One study we reviewed found that students taught at home by mothers who never finished high school scored a full 55 percentile points higher than public school students from families with comparable education levels," said Claudia Hepburn, co-author of the study.

Teachers Telecommute

Deschner spent 10 years teaching in the brick-and-mortar public school system before joining the TXVA. Teaching for an online public school lets her work from home and tailor her job so she can care for her pre-kindergarten son.

"It's easier for me to go to an event at his school than if I were at a brick-and-mortar school. I can be available for my family and my students," Deschner said.

The TXVA gives her a laptop so she can handle her workload from most locations.

"I can work whether I'm at home or at the actual TXVA office for a meeting. I was in Virginia last week for a conference, and I was able to get back with families as I could through e-mail. My husband had a business trip, and I actually worked out of the hotel room and was able to travel with him at that time, make my conference calls to families and do everything I needed to do just like a regular day," Deschner said.

Bureaucratic Obstacle

The TXVA is one of two public online schools in Texas. The second is the Texas Virtual School, in conjunction with the Houston Independent School District. Both schools were founded through a TEA program called the Electronic Course Program (eCP), which enables interested school districts and charter schools to implement online programs and receive state funding for each participating student. Few schools applied for the program, and the aforementioned two were the only ones that satisfied TEA's accountability rating.

Participation has grown in the two schools for a combined enrollment of just under 700 students, but the TEA hasn't offered the program to more schools since 2005. The agency must process students' attendance for their school to get funding, and TEA's automated student database can't process online attendance, said Kate Loughrey, director of distance learning for the TEA.

"We can't just plug those students into our automated statewide system because that system wasn't designed for a world where students aren't physically present on campus. The system can't report the students as being present, because being present requires certain rules saying you're in your seat," Loughrey said.

For the two online schools, TEA personnel make do with an Excel spreadsheet to process attendance and release state funding for the students. However, that process would have been too complicated to do statewide, said Loughrey. The TXVA's funding is based solely on student participation and performance. The TEA deducts $150 for each subject that a student fails on the TAKS.

Andy Opsahl  |  Staff Writer