Va. is for virtual, not charter, schools
Charter school advocates like me are going to make a big deal out of Virginia Gov. Robert F. McDonnell's plan to expand those publicly funded, independently run educational alternatives. But I predict the most important part of his Wednesday education announcement will not turn out to be about charter schools. It will be what he said about virtual schools, the growing segment of programs in which students learn online.
McDonnell's virtual education proposals are in sync with a new report from the Brown Center on Education Policy at the Brookings Institution. Brookings, often described as liberal-leaning, might seem an odd fit with Virginia's new conservative Republican governor. But the report reveals that some school choice advocates on McDonnell's side of the issue are ready to accept the reality that some of their favorite reforms don't have as much potential for growth as they would like.
That is certainly true of charters in Virginia. As McDonnell pointed out, his state has only three of the independent public schools (a fourth is scheduled to open this year) while the nation has more than 4,600. He wants to stimulate their growth in Virginia, as President Obama is trying to do nationally, by giving the state Board of Education the power to approve charters denied by local school boards that are reluctant to create independent schools that would compete with their own.
As my colleague Anita Kumar made clear in her story Thursday about McDonnell's plan, provisions in the state constitution that give local school boards great power in these matters are likely to delay the governor's charter school expansion plan for some time. Lawsuits are likely to be filed. Lengthy legal proceedings will ensue.
In the meantime, McDonnell will be pursuing the expansion of virtual learning and virtual schooling that already has been embraced by many school systems in the state. My colleague Nick Anderson, in his story on the growth of the Advanced Placement program nationally, said Virginia Superintendent of Public Instruction Patricia I. Wright listed growth in online learning among the most important reasons why success on AP tests has increased more in Virginia than in any other state over the last five years.
McDonnell said in his education innovation announcement: "The 21st Century economy is not limited by regional or national borders, and the 21st Century education system should no longer be limited by traditional brick and mortar. Virtual schools provide excellent instruction, adhere to the same Standards of Learning as all Virginia schools, and bring the world to children in their own cities and counties."
In the Brookings Institution report, "Expanding Choice in Elementary and Secondary Education," two innovations usually favored by school choice advocates---charter schools and tax-supported vouchers to attend private schools---are pushed to the side. This is remarkable, given that one of the seven co-authors is Harvard political scientist Paul Peterson, a prominent leader of the voucher movement.
But Peterson and his other co-authors---Jay Greene of the University of Arkansas, Tom Loveless of Brookings, W. Bentley MacLeod of Columbia, Thomas Nechyba of Duke, Meredith Rosenthal of the Harvard School of Public Health and Grover Whitehurst of Brookings---have embraced a new trend toward practical, rather than visionary, solutions. This is in tune with McDonnell's campaign for the Virginia governorship, and his appointment and proposals at the beginning of his four-year term.
"Advocates and opponents of choice typically lock horns over idealized systems of schooling that do not presently exist in the U.S.," the Brookings report says. Instead, it proposes some changes that would require less daunting shifts in policy for public schools that already exist.
Expanding virtual education, by letting students learn not in classrooms but online, either at home or in school computer labs, is key to the Brookings proposal, mostly because that route would cost much less than other reforms. The report sites one study of 20 virtual schools in 14 states where the average per pupil cost of online learning in 2008 was $4,300, compared to an average per-pupil cost of $9,100 at a traditional public school in 2006.
Other Brookings proposals are more of a stretch. The authors would like school districts to create many more spaces in schools that parents want to send their children to and close schools that parents reject. That would mean opening new campuses of popular and successful public offerings like the Arlington Traditional School in Arlington County, or the School Without Walls in the District, or the magnet programs at Montgomery Blair and Poolesville high schools in Montgomery County. Schools drenched in failure, like Ballou High School in the District, would be closed and their buildings used for programs based on models that had attracted parents elsewhere.
The Brookings report authors suggest creating independent Web sites that would rate the programs offered at every school, without the taint of self-serving school district propaganda. They want to eliminate the easy default choice for parents who keep sending their kids to the nearest school. Instead, if their local school was not performing well, it would get a new name and new program. Parents would have to rank a series of choices and be assigned to a school that matched preferences they marked in a detailed survey.
That may not go over so well. The rise in transportation costs would pose a problem. But one option likely to reduce the need for busing would be virtual schooling, embraced by both McDonnell and Brookings. I don't know how well virtual schools will do in raising achievement. There isn't enough data yet. But they are worth a try.
Over a million students are involved with virtual education, a 47 percent increase over 2006, according to a survey by the Sloan Consortium. That is enough to justify giving more families a choice of that kind of education, and to see how they like it.
| February 12, 2010; 5:30 AM ET
Categories: Trends | Tags: Paul Peterson, Robert F. McDonnell, Virginia schools, charter schools, online learning, school choice, virtual learning, virtual schools, vouchers
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