Friday, April 03, 2009

Virtual schools, real questions

This is an interesting article and actually has relevance to current Texas policy trying to promote virtual learning. Another concern is that this kind of instruction "virtually" eliminates the need for teachers. A sneaky approach if you're trying to avoid teacher shortage problems. Education without teachers - something to think about.


by The Editorial Board
Thursday April 02, 2009, 4:04 PM

Lawmakers should support existing online charter schools while adopting a moratorium to resolve the policy issues they raise

Oregon legislators clearly don't know what to make of virtual education, the online charter schools that serve 4,000 kids in this state, and, by most accounts, serve them well.

The Oregon Education Association, the state teachers union, is pushing a bill in Salem that would cripple online charter schools. Meanwhile, K12 Inc., the private vendor that operates the largest of Oregon's virtual schools, is lobbying for a competing bill that would encourage more online charter schools in the state.

Neither approach, in our view, makes sense for Oregon right now. Lawmakers and state education officials simply are not prepared to resolve the issues raised by online charter schools. Instead, lawmakers ought to pass a bill that places a one- or two-year moratorium on new or expanded virtual schools while ensuring that the existing schools can continue to operate.

As it stands, Oregon has no well-informed policy on virtual schools. The state's largest online school, the Oregon Connections Academy, is run out of one of Oregon's smallest school districts, the Scio School District. ORCA, as the online school is known, has more than 2,500 students. Scio itself had 676 students at the state's last count. One of the questions a work group must answer is whether it is appropriate for small districts to operate large, statewide schools.

There are many other significant issues. Some are financial: Should full state per-pupil funding follow students of virtual schools if there are no associated costs for heat, busing, building maintenance or capital improvements? Are virtual schools a way for home-schoolers to obtain a private education at public expense?

Other questions are about accountability: What kind of financial and academic transparency should Oregon demand of private vendors and other entities operating online charter schools? How can the state fully assess the rigor and quality of online schools?

Oregon isn't prepared to answer all those questions right now. What lawmakers can clearly see, though, is that many families are prepared to strongly defend existing online schools. One state survey of parents of online charter schools found that 96 percent gave their schools an "A" or "B" grade. The public school system would certainly love those kinds of grades.

The bill pushed by the Oregon Education Association would require that 50 percent of the students of any online charter school live within the boundaries of the sponsoring school district. That would kill the ORCA school -- only a small percentage of its students live in the tiny Scio district -- and crimp the entire online school movement in this state.

Oregon shouldn't do that. Virtual schools hold tremendous promise, and those who are pioneering online learning in this state should be encouraged, not driven away. It's clear that self-paced learning can effectively meet the needs of both gifted students and students who need more time. To put it bluntly, a state that sees a quarter or so of its students drop out from regular public schools shouldn't be blithely eliminating alternatives.

Yet if the Oregon Education Association is wrong to try to shut down existing virtual schools, it is not wrong to point out that this state has not answered hard questions about money, equity and accountability raised by the growth of online charter schools.

Lawmakers should keep the existing schools open and establish a work group to draft a well-reasoned policy on online education. The times and the technology keep moving forward. Oregon education policy needs to run and catch up.

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