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
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
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
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
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
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,
“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.