Here in Texas we have virtual schooling provided by various charter school districts.
The sky didn’t fall.
Schools are not emptying out all over the state like a Randian fantasy. On the contrary, Texas is busting out all over. Every school is stuffed near to the brim, and we are building new schools. The virtual charter schools actually represent a relatively low percentage of overall student population.
There is a huge demand for more flexible schooling options for families. Virtual schooling and other progressive educational options are not going to go away. In fact, there is going to be greater and greater pressure to give families more options and more control over how and when our kids get educated. And, states have a huge demand for turnkey solutions and cost efficiencies. So, charters are not going to go away. Rather, we will see states contract for more and more specialized services that they might have built from scratch in the past, simply because, in the past, there weren't readymade solutions available out in the marketplace. Now, there are. It's easier, it's faster, and the risk is lower than building something from scratch since the same solution has already been deployed successfully in other areas. There are risks and drawbacks as there are with every solution, but these can be managed.
Michigan is proposing legislation to make it possible to roll out virtual schooling district in their state. While there are many concerns over this legislation, it deserves consideration.
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Virtual Schools operate in a grey zone between public schools and homeschooling. In fact, since it demands so much parental involvement and supervision, it is more of an alternative to home-schooling, than an alternative to brick-and-mortar schools. Few parents want to take on the added responsibilities and extra work unless they have a really good reason. In the past, when public brick-and-mortar schools did not meet the needs of children, families were forced to homeschool. Now we have another alternative, virtual schools. The State of Texas has very little requirements for homeschooling. It requires that there be a curriculum, but does not say what that curriculum should be, nor how many hours a student must attend, or very little else. This freedom serves to protect civil liberties. But, most families don’t really want that much freedom. They really want their kid to graduate with the same level of education as other kids. With a virtual schooling option, the curriculum is aligned with State Standards, there is a defined work schedule, teachers monitor the student’s participation and progress and provide intervention when needed, the student’s educational level is regularly assessed with standardized state testing, the student receives actual school credit, and the student’s progress is maintained at standard grade level so that they would be at a comparable educational level to transfer easily back to a brick-and-mortar school.
When I asked parents in my virtual school why they were there, the number one reason was special needs. Yes, brick-and-mortar schools offer “special needs programs”, but they don’t work very well for many students, particularly high functioning students. When a child needs control over their schedule, frequent rest breaks, and a low sensory stimulating environment, such as kids with fibro or ADD, public schools often fail miserably. Parents find that even services that are supposed to be offered by IEP plans are often not administered. Parents often struggle with schools that will not give medications on the prescribed schedule, or at all, even when the issue has been raised repeatedly. In addition, these programs often suffer from the “too many cooks in the kitchen” syndrome, where a bevy of teachers, counselors, school nurses, doctors, principals, etc. all compete to create utter chaos. They may be well intentioned, but they tend to be very proud of their own “expert opinions” (even though persons with educational degrees know little about many medical disabilities) and disinclined to listen to the people who are actually living with the problem, the parents and the child. After all, a parent who lives with the child’s disability 24 hours a day is not considered an expert, and is often considered more of an obstacle to be overcome by the “experts”. The main problem, though, is that schools just don’t have a way to provide an environment where the student has control over the timing of work and rest breaks, or the low sensory stimulating environment that is required. They don’t have the facilities and they don’t have the staff, and they don’t have the resources to deal with these students. So, they don’t. They get a bunch of papers signed, and then try to stuff the kids right back in the same classroom, with the bright lights, loud noises, non-ergonomic chairs, noxious smells, and huge crowds bumping into each other, and pretend that they fixed the problem.
Virtual schools, and other programs that offer parents flexible options, accomplish two things. They give parents and kids more tools to solve their own problems, and by letting families solve their own problems, they reduce the stress and demands on public schools which would otherwise be required to put on the three ring circus described above, one student at a time, to deal with special needs that they do not actually have the facilities or resources or experience to deal with.
I've seen it proposed that maybe we should make virtual schooling available only for special needs. The problem is that we cannot anticipate all of the issues that virtual schooling can solve, and introducing these arbitrary barriers between families and public schooling resources simply makes it that much more difficult for famlies to address their own issues and find solutions that fit their needs. They can see the solution right in front of them, but they can't get to it because of some stupid rule made by people who never anticipated their situation.
Virtual schooling is a specialized type of schooling different from brick-and-mortar in infrastructure. Any State or School district attempting to develop a virtual schooling system would be starting from scratch. They would need the technological infrastructure, new facilities for teaching staff, distribution centers for the supplies, programs for distribution of teaching materials direct to student, and much more. OR, they could contract with a business that specializes in virtual schooling, and already has all of this built out.
There are concerns, of course, with using a charter program. One of the biggest concerns is that charters have been used in some States by the “Good Old Boy” system to divert public funding for the profit of unscrupulous individuals. This objection, however, can also apply to public school systems. Wherever there is a lack of adequate oversight, officials can make sweetheart deals and tap those school funds through anything from janitorial contracts to busing contracts to real estate deals. For instance, here in Texas, politicians set up “economic development funds” and diverted public education money from schools to concrete plants. No charters involved. So, charters are just another tool for States and Districts, and they can be used wisely to the benefit of the school district, or unwisely to the detriment of our schools or the profit of criminals. That issue is not about charters. It is about proper oversight and fiscal accountability, and it can be solved.
Another concern, of course, is the public funding of teachers who are non-union. I agree that it would make sense in many ways for States to use unionized teaching staff in virtual schools, but for the state to manage the staff, they still need to build out that infrastructure, and then they will need other infrastructure that may be contracted out, and managing it all separately does add another layer of complexity that makes it harder for states to get to the finish line to get the solution rolled out. The fact that charter virtual schools are a turnkey solution is a big attraction to states trying to get the project done. The “turnkey” approach is, I believe, the biggest reason that states are using charters for virtual schooling. Theoretically, it seems like the employees could unionize if they chose. I suspect that virtual teachers might need to organize separately, anyway, because some of the labor issues for a virtual teacher will be very different from brick and mortar teachers.
The bottom line is that greater flexibility is needed in our schools. Virtual schools are one effective solution that is addressing that need. States have logistical challenges in providing these services, and charter schools offer solutions that have been demonstrated to work.