About 800 students, parents and teachers marched and carried signs on the Capitol lawn Tuesday to protest funding cuts to distance learning programs proposed during closed-door budget meetings.
Organizers said students from 11 of the state's 14 distance-education programs participated.
"I feel like they're targeting us because we're not in a building," said Adriana Moerkerken, a Tucson resident who brought her three children. "If they're going to cut education, they should cut it in all schools."
Moerkerken said that home-schooling with the help of Arizona Virtual Academy allows her kids to learn at their own pace, not the pace of others, and that her daughter skipped two grades because of that.
Leroy Fluker, a Gilbert 13-year-old, said he chose distance education so he'd have time for dance class.
Fluker is enrolled in a performing arts program offered by Sequoia Choice, a distance learning charter school in Mesa. He said if his school lost funding, it would change his life.
"We would lose our whole dance program," Fluker said.
Rep. Rich Crandall, R-Mesa, said distance learning in Arizona may not be perfect but it definitely doesn't need its funding cut by the 20 percent he said he's heard some senators propose during budget talks.
"There are other places to find the money," Crandall said.
Superintendent of Public Instruction Tom Horne attended the demonstration to voice his opposition to funding cuts. He said distance learning is the future.
"Other industries have become much more efficient due to technology, and education has to do the same," Horne said.
Kimberly Springer, principal of Arizona Connections Academy, which offers online instruction, said a 20 percent cut, which is the figure she's heard, "would just be deadly to our program."
Springer said the teacher-to-student ratio at her school is about 50-1 for elementary education and 40-1 for secondary.
She said each student receives a 30-minute telephone evaluation every other week in addition to instruction in the virtualclassroom.
Distance learning schools like Springer's were funded by legislation drafted in 1998, when lawmakers created the Technology Assisted Project-Based Instruction pilot program.
It was designed to give students more options, but last year the auditor general concluded that the program had been overfunded by about $6.4 million.
A performance audit attributed the overfunding to the fact that 40 percent of distance learning students were concurrently enrolled in brick-and-mortar schools. The report also stated that online hours logged by Arizona's 15,000 distance learning students couldn't be proven to be time spent doing schoolwork.
Crandall sponsored a measure that would create a TAPBI advisory committee and mandate more accurate calculation of the time that distance learning students spend studying.
That bill, HB 2816, was endorsed by the House and is awaiting approval from the full Senate.