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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.

By Jay Mathews  | 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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Comments

The Brookings Institute and a Republican governor aren't such a strange alliance when it comes to the education issue. There's Democrats for Education Reform which is supportive of a wide range of education alternatives and not that long ago the Citizen's Committee for Civil Rights came out strongly for educational alternatives.

The issue's in the air Jay. What I wonder at is what you briefly touch on; the substantial savings that are possible with educational alternatives.

You'd think, given the economic situation in many states, a 53% cost reduction on one of the biggest parts of the budget would draw some interest but, not yet.

Posted by: allenm1 | February 12, 2010 6:35 AM | Report abuse

I liked the use of "practical" rather than "visionary," because that is what is missing from most programs initiated in public schools and how public schools got itself into such a mess. The ones who actually teach and implement these crazy ideas are the ones who have been left out of the discussion.

By the time those of us in the trenches hear about them, it is too late. The controlled message has already been sold to parents and a public that are clueless about how a public school teacher spends this/her day and the depth of the issues we confront.

Since I started teaching in 1970, I have seen a few successful reforms. But many reforms were total failures because they looked good on paper but in practical application, were disasterous.

"Virtual schools" if done in a classroom/school setting with a teacher in control, is certainly a possibility. But online classes that can be accessed at home would be a joke. How would you know who was sitting in front of the computer? Cheating? They use their cell phones as is to communicate test questions and answers. They could look up answers online. For responsible kids, maybe...for those kids who could care less about school...no way. Who would determine who was eligible for at-home online classes?

In the Norfolk, Va school system, just this year, there have been 4 cases of school "reporting errors" for last year's SOL's. This is a school system with teacher whistle blowers, some who have left the system...but the administrators seem immune from assuming responsibility.

Again, McD and others are blowing smoke of some kind because while it sounds like a great idea on paper...pragmatically, it won't work.

Posted by: ilcn | February 12, 2010 9:56 AM | Report abuse

Wow, what a post. I am going to skip over such gems as "idealized systems of schooling" and "easy default" of choosing a neighborhood school and back up a bit. How is Obama going to "give" the Virginia state board of education the power to overrule local school boards? Did anyone vote for Obama in order to get this result?

Posted by: pittypatt | February 12, 2010 12:58 PM | Report abuse

Okay I misread. This is still a great post and thought-provoking.

Posted by: pittypatt | February 12, 2010 1:05 PM | Report abuse

"It won't work", Ilcn, is the claim that those by-passed by technology always seem to make -- well after the experiments have begun and the evidence has piled up against them.

Jay claims that over 1 million (of about 50 million) K-12 students "are involved". Of course, "involved" is a pretty amorphous term and might include an online session once a week or less. But if a couple of school districts with supportive staffs willing to split any savings with the taxpayers get some success using teachers as facilitators for classes of 200 students with much teaching done online rather than insisting on closed classroom doors with 80 to 120 students per day, this might be a win-win rather than your "won't work".

Posted by: mct210 | February 13, 2010 10:18 AM | Report abuse

"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." I believe what Superintendent Wright was referring to was Virtual Virginia, which is the official online learning program of the Virginia Department of Education. Virtual Virginia has been expanding opportunities for students in Virginia since 2005. Learn more at www.virtualvirginia.org

Posted by: citizencloud | February 13, 2010 4:56 PM | Report abuse

Ballou is "drenched in failure"?


How about "drenched in poverty"?

Posted by: Nemessis | February 14, 2010 8:15 AM | Report abuse

Virtual Education (online) has been working well for years in India, Singapore, and Massachusetts with the www.heymath.com flash animated online version of the Indian math curriculum. Headsprout.com is an online early reading program that comes with a money back guarantee (I'm still looking for a textbook maker that would give a money back guarantee). One problem, some large states want a textbook to go with the online program which gives the inside track to the Goldman Sachs of the education world Textbook makers. There are a number of online programs that deliver effective, reliable, instruction in core subjects from early reading to mathematics. They are very cost efficient and scare teachers unions and textbook makers as well. In the world of public education that's the problem.

Posted by: Stallcup | February 14, 2010 4:09 PM | Report abuse

What llcn says about on-line learning is true - you don't know who's sitting in front of the computer. However, it's arguable whether or not that's actually a problem. My husband and I are seriously considering home-schooling our children (who aren't yet school-age), and we would welcome on-line education to support us. Sure, maybe we wouldn't want or need on-line classes for elementary school (although, who knows, maybe they'd be great), but I would certainly welcome on-line classes for high school. This would be particularly helpful if we end up spending a few years abroad, allowing us to maintain a consistent American education. Who would make sure it was my student doing the work? I would, as part of my personal commitment to their education.

On the other hand, my husband is completing his master's on-line, and when he has tests, he's required to find a proctor (at work, in his case). My cousin is in Florida, enrolled in an on-line French education program in Canada, is required to go to a testing center to have her exams proctored, and they even do speaking tests on-line, using video technology. Howard Community College has a testing center like that for their on-line classes, too, and they will also proctor tests for any student who needs to make up an exam for whatever reason (at the discretion of the prof, obviously). The on-line classes I took as part of my M.A. never required any of that - we didn't have actual exams, just papers and assignments, and it was simply the honor system that we were doing our work. Many approaches to the same problem.

As a teacher, I welcome on-line education. But of course, the union would tell me I'm a horrible sell-out anyway, because I also welcome charters and vouchers; I just think parents should have choice for their students.

Posted by: LadybugLa | February 14, 2010 6:56 PM | Report abuse

RE: mct210's assumptions.

I may be old, but I'm not technology adverse. I, too, have taken on-line courses...but it was difficult and frustrating getting the immediate feedback I needed when questions arose. And I'm a teacher who needed recertification points...not a teenager obsessed with how many "Friends" I have on Facebook. If you would have read my post carefully, you would see that I acknowledged it might work in a classroom setting with a teacher/facilitator present.

My point: We can start with ideas, but those ideas need to be followed by details BEFORE everyone jumps on the bandwagon and gets out the pom-poms. Just to be in favor of virtual classrooms is not enough...the devil, like many things, is in the details.

Your comments are what prevents logical, constructive discussions from occurring with relation to public education.

We do a disservice to public education, students, teachers, and parents when those advocating for reform have only a basic understanding of how public schools work and are not willing to confront the potential obstacles. We will never move on until all ideas and concerns have been examined, and the practicality of those ideas and concerns addressed.

Just like any good teacher, never totally dismiss the comments/ideas of the others in the room.

Posted by: ilcn | February 14, 2010 8:00 PM | Report abuse

Here in CA, students enrolled in virtual charter schools have to meet with a certified teacher once every 20 school days to review work completed. Additionally, enrolled students have to take proctored state standardized tests annually.

Posted by: CrimsonWife | February 14, 2010 9:18 PM | Report abuse

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