Virtual School Cuts

A great deal has been said (and written) lately about Ohio Gov. Ted Strickland and his plans for charter schools in the Buckeye State.  As part of his state of the state address in January, Strickland embraced the notion of charter schools … as long as they were run by not-for-profits.  It was a bold stance, once that could be a precursor to future charter fights in the years to come.

Like most states, Ohio is faced with serious budget shortfalls.  Some may say the Ohio budget may be the most challenging, in terms of potential for massive cutbacks, save for California.  Even with support from the federal government under the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, Ohio is having to make tough decisions on its K-12 policy priorities.
Those decisions seem to be forcing Strickland to finetune his charter school philosophy even more.  Earlier this week, as part of the Governor’s budget, Ohio proposed that virtual charter schools suffer the same fate as their for-profit brethren — elimination.  The Governor proposed slashing 75 percent of funding for the state’s virtual charter schools, affecting 34 schools serving more than 23,000 students.
In previous budgets, Ohio’s virtual charter schools received approximately $5,400 per pupil for education.  The proposed budget drops that to $1,500 per pupil in aid.  The plan makes a clear distinction in aid formulas provided to brick-and-mortar schools and these virtual academies.  The full story, courtesy of the Columbus Dispatch’s Catherine Candisky, can be found here – www.dispatch.com/live/content/local_news/stories/2009/03/01/charter.ART_ART_03-01-09_B3_UDD2SLF.html?sid=101.  
Yes, virtual schools operate on less dollars than traditional, bricks-and-mortar schools.  Duh!  With no physical infrastructure to attend to, operating costs are indeed lower.  But these schools still need to invest in the technological infrastructure, curriculum, teacher salaries and benefits, educator PD, and student assessments, to name just a few.  There are real costs associated with virtual schools, particularly if educators are to ensure that students maximize the opportunities posed to them.
But it begs larger questions.  What are we getting, even for those reduced dollars?  Are virtual charter schools working in Ohio?  The Dispatch cites on K-12 virtual school that has regularly hit AYP numbers while earning a decent “continuous improvement” grade.  But that school is operating at a 35:1 student:teacher ratio, far above the 25:1 ration the proposed state formula expected.  What about the other 33 schools?
As we are seeing in Florida, Texas, Pennsylvania, Alabama, and a host of other states, there is a real role for virtual education in the K-12 experience if it is done right, done effectively, and done with the purpose of improving access and opportunity for all students.  We also know that virtual education can be an incubator for bad practice, with those seeking to make a quick buck taking advantage of a state or school district’s desire to innovate.  One only has to look at higher education to see how a good, well-meaning idea can quickly be bastardized.
So as Ohio’s virtual charter schools are facing the virtual guillotine, we must look at their success boosting student achievement and closing the achievement gap.  Like Ohio’s Connections Academy, are all the Buckeye State’s virtual schools regularly making AYP?  If not, why not?  Is the quality of instruction (and the quality of the teacher) the same as in traditional schools?  Are they improving access for all students, particularly those in low-income and hard-to-serve communities, or are the attracting a select group of students who can receive a good education in virtually any circumstance?  Are we seeing longitudinal data on student achievement, or are students not staying in the virtual programs long enough to measure true year-on-year-on-year data?  Are the programs proven effective, and can we demonstrate it?
Virtual schools are an easy mark when it comes to education budget cutting.  Most taxpayers and policymakers are under the impression that such programs are the playgrounds of white families with some financial resources.  The urban legend goes most minority and low-income families simply don’t have the technology at home to effectively engage in online education, and they certainly don’t have the familial oversight to ensure that students, particularly those in the elementary and middle grades, are putting in the time and effort required of effective virtual education.  (Hogwash, of course, but many believe it.)  Layer on the notion that most virtual teachers are non-union, many providers are for-profit, and we just don’t trust the rigor of “computer game” education and you can see why virtual K-12 schools are an easy target during tough budget times.
Is there a role for virtual education in our K-12 infrastructure?  Absolutely.  Can new technologies level the playing field and provide learning opportunities some schools could never get?  Absolutely.  Can virtual ed boost student achievement, close the achievement gap, and meet AYP just as well as a bricks-and-mortar school?  When executed properly, absolutely.  But such programs remain a supplement to the traditional public education network.  As much as some may want them to supplant failing programs, that will never happen, at least not in our current education mindset.
We’re all for innovation, as long as we innovate within reason.  If virtual schools are going to be fully embraced as a key component of our K-12 patchwork, they must first do a better job communicating their strong academic foundations, benefits, quality, and results.  Until then, many will continue to see them as online playing when “real” students are hard at work.  And as long as that is the case, they will always face potential cuts and elimination from policymakers balancing a range of interests, especially when virtual K-12 is seen as a boutique industry (and a mostly for-profit one at that).
  

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