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 Article of Interest - Private Schools

Cyber' Schools — Only A Matter Of Time?

MIRS, July 31, 2002

(DENVER) — The “cyber” high school phenomenon that has spread through Pennsylvania, California and Colorado is being framed by many in the education community as the wave of the future and something that states such as Michigan may not be able to avoid for long.

Speaking at the National Conference of State Legislatures (NCSL) annual meeting last Thursday, Eric PREMACK, Charter Development Center co-director at California State University, said that as much as government bureaucrats are fighting this tough-to-regulate trend, cyber schools are catching on as an alternate to public schools.

Especially in rural, spread-out-districts with decreasing enrollment like the Upper Peninsula, school instruction over the Internet may be seen as a cost-effective way to provide education to a number of high school students.

“At some point, there will be more of these virtual education programs,” said Bryan FLOOD, government affairs director for K12, a company specializing in home-based education. “As programs like ours are proven successful, the doors will gradually open in places like Michigan to this type of approach.”

Michigan law currently restricts the ability of charter schools to offer classes over the Internet, but depending on the state's future political environment, high school students could be learning at home, in front of their computers sooner than later.

By definition, cyber schools are self-paced instruction in which daily lesson plans are sent over the Internet. The managing school puts together lesson plans aimed at teaching rural, expelled or outcasted children. Children with disabilities, children of armed forces personnel or those living in poor school districts can take advantage of this independent-study like environment.

The concept started in the 500-student Midland School District in rural Pennsylvania in the mid-1990s after the money-strapped school closed their high school and the neighboring school districts refused to take the children. The students were forced to cross the border to Ohio to get an education, which didn't sit well with the locals.

As a result, the district formed the Western Pennsylvania Charter School and former Midland School District students were the first clients. The student-learn-at-home concept was an unexpected success. Word caught on and students from other districts began taking classes on-line. National companies began taking hold of the concept and offering these cyber schools in inner-city Philadelphia.

As the Pennsylvania K-12 education funding system works, charter schools are paid $5,000-$7,000 per child by the public school district that the student comes from. The more students that signed up for a cyber education, the higher the political heat was turned up.

“Until 2000, only about 10 percent of the districts were affected,” said Ronald COWELL, president of the Education Policy and Leadership Center. “Then cyber schools started sending invoices to about every school district in the state. This got the attention of school boards, the Legislature and the Department of Education.”

School districts fought the invoices in court and lost, forcing the Department of Education and the Legislature to re-write the laws to assure the accountability and educational quality of these schools was legitimate. Since then cyber schools have caught on nationwide.

According to Ray ROSE, director of the Concord Consortium, estimate that 30,000 high school students have taken an online course and that another 25,000 students are enrolled in teacher-led online courses this academic year. It is estimated that by 2006, a majority of high school students will have an online course before graduating.

The questions policymakers face with virtual schools are many. How are these schools held accountable? How should they be funded? Who manages them? Do they work?

Premack said California officials made a mess of their regulations by burying virtual school administrators in mountains of paperwork. They also opened up a can of worms when they began the seemingly endless debate of whether virtual schools should receive less money per student than the brick-and-mortar institutions.

In the end, Premack said equal funding is the best idea. Virtual schools do have enormous software costs, technical support costs and other unseen expenditures regular schools don't have. Trying to compare this price tag to that of a regular school turns into an enormous mess, he said.

“In general, legislators are having a problem with this new technology because it is tough to define. It's tough to regulate,” Premack said. “Funding them can be extremely frustrating.”

One section of the state could benefit from on-line education is the Upper Peninsula. Gov. John ENGLER formed a task force April 25 to find ways to educate students in the sparsely populated Upper Peninsula. The task force, made up of U.P. educational, business and industry leaders, is using $10 million in state and federal funds to electronically connect the schools north of the Mackinac Bridge who are struggling with declining enrollment.

The National Education Association passed a resolution in 2001 stating that it does not support cyber charters, according to the publication Education Week. One could argue the MEA's strong influence in Michigan politics has kept cyber schools from even being debated.

But even the NEA has softened to some degree, recently issuing a guide for lawmakers, students and parents that poses questions that should be asked about cyber schools.

States must determine guidelines for the creation of online courses and local school districts must identify their own goals in using online programs, the NEA report states. Students must become informed consumers and parents must understand how online education works and if it would work for their children, it continues.

“Information technology in education is in its embryonic states, and these criteria should be a subtle, developing tool as we steer through these exhilarating but challenging times,” the NEA report reads.


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