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Virtual Schools’ 21st Century Teaching

Thursday, August 29, 2002 at 4:18 PM

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Advocates of school choice hailed the U.S. Supreme Court's decision to uphold Cleveland's school voucher program. Ironically, this symbolic victory for school choice is unlikely to herald any widespread explosion of voucher programs around the state. But other choice options are on the march. Charter schools, for instance, have been multiplying steadily, and stand to gain further ground with pending new legislation. A variation of the charter school is also on the rise. Operators of on-line charter - or virtual - schools have been busy this summer recruiting students for what some hint could be the wave-of-the-21st-century in education. And not surprisingly, this newest manifestation of school choice has some staunch opposition. 90.3's Bill Rice reports.

Bill Rice: On line charters schools are a relatively new phenomenon. The first such virtual school in Ohio - the Electronic Classroom of Tomorrow - or e-COT, brought students on line in 2000. Today there are 5 in operation throughout the state. The latest to enter the cyber-arena is Ohio Virtual Academy, based in Toledo. The school’s main spokesperson - and his message - are no stranger to many educators.

William J. Bennett: The content and curriculum is the name of the game.

BR: William J. Bennett served as Secretary of Education under President Ronald Reagan, and the Director of the Office of Drug Control Policy under President George Bush. He’s now Chairman of K-12, a company based in McLean, Virginia that operates on-line charter schools in several states, including OVA. Bennett touts what he considers the advantages of an on-line education, such as a tailored curriculum and individualized pace of learning. And, he says, recalling his days of touring schools as Education Secretary, the prominence of the parent in the child’s education.

WB: The most serious problem in American education, and still is, is the displacement of the parent from the central role in the education of the child. Not every teacher is a parent, but every parent is a teacher. And not only was I at a lot of schools where parents were not given this responsibility and reminded of it, I was at schools where parents were actually discouraged from taking an active role. And a kind of cult of expertise that says parents’ questions and parents’ concerned not welcome here.

BR: Bennett says since OVA is a publicly funded charter school, tuition is free. This is a main selling point of virtual charter schools, and marketers make that abundantly clear to those they primarily target - home schoolers. Students are issued a computer, related equipment and software, and course materials. All schoolwork is done from the home, under parents’ supervision. Bennett says this benefits many for whom, for one reason or another, a traditional school setting is unsatisfactory.

WB: There are kids with special needs, physical needs, emotional needs. There are kids who are on a mission - kids training for gymnastics, kids who are musicians, they’re traveling a lot. This kind of program can work for those kids too. But then there’s just your basic run of the mill kid, this program will work for those kids too because of the nature of the curriculum.

BR: Of course, there are teachers involved who are available to assist where needed and grade tests and papers. Parents, Bennett says, communicate with teachers primarily by e-mail and telephone, on average about once every two weeks.

Other virtual schools operating in Ohio include the Virtual Community School, or VCS, of Ohio, which has also been actively recruiting students this summer, and the Ohio Distance and electronic Learning Academy, or OHDELA, run by a company called White Hat Management, Ohio’s largest charter school operator. Like OVA, OHDELA and VCS Ohio recruit students from districts around the state. That rankles many school district officials. Dan Wilson is Treasurer of Parma City Schools. He says charter schools, siphon money away from school districts.

Dan Wilson: This past year 151.1 full time equivalent students, which counts fractions for students that attend part of the year or kindergarten students that count as one half students - that combined 151 students resulted in us losing $848,100 in state funding.

BR: That’s more than five thousand dollars per child, Wilson says - money that’s deducted from his district and paid to the charter school. That’s bad enough, Wilson says, but on-line charter schools are particularly objectionable because 1. the money is sent out of the district to the virtual school, and 2) much of that money doesn’t go into children’s education.

DW: The internet schools have a cost basis as low as $1,500, compared to a funding by the state from taking money away from us, of 5187 for every student, so that would suggest to me a significant opportunity for profit.

BR: And profit is what many believe is the prime motivation of charter schools. Bennett’s Ohio Virtual Academy, along with VCS Ohio and OHDELA, are all run by for-profit companies. Tom Mooney, head of the Ohio Federation of Teachers, opposes on-line charter schools - and charter schools in general. But some are more odious than others, Mooney says. He points to a school called TRECA Digital Academy, which is operated by a local school district.

Tom Mooney: In the case of TRECA the surplus - the money that’s not spent on the virtual schools - remains in the districts, so that other students can continue to get a quality education. They’re not taking 5,000 out of the district the way, say, e-cot does, or the Ohio Virtual Academy being promoted by Bill Bennett. Those for-profit companies take $5,000 out of the school district, and if they only spend 2,000 they get to pocket the difference.

BR: Mooney says many other school districts are cuing up to follow TRECA’s lead. In fact, local districts have filed more than 100 virtual school charter applications, and many are turning to TRECA to help them develop their operations. Meanwhile, charter schools, both brick and mortar and on-line, continue to be a source of heated controversy in Ohio. A bill in the legislature would expand opportunities for charter schools. At the same time, a pending lawsuit makes multiple claims challenging charter schools in Ohio. In Cleveland, Bill Rice, 90.3.

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