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Published in Print: January 1, 2004, as Identity Crisis

Identity Crisis

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An online school raises questions about public funding.

To the casual observer of the virtual education movement, there is nothing irregular about the Minnesota Virtual Academy, a one-year-old online school operated by Houston Public Schools, a rural district 120 miles southeast of Minneapolis. Its 280 students complete lessons online, using computers and mailed learning materials. Its 15 teachers work out of their homes around the state and communicate with students and parents by e-mail and telephone. Occasionally, instructors arrange field trips and face-to-face activities with their classes.

To the leaders of Minnesota's largest teachers' union, however, the school is something of a smokescreen, behind which educators and parents are circumventing laws designed to prevent public funding from supporting homeschooling and other unregulated teaching arrangements. This past fall, the union filed a lawsuit challenging the legality of the state's funding of the online school. The outcome might determine whether the Houston district can continue to operate the academy and has ignited debate about the proper roles of teachers and parents in publicly financed virtual schools. (Wisconsin's largest teachers' union, the Wisconsin Education Association Council, has filed similar suits against two online schools in that state.)

Officials at Education Minnesota, an affiliate of both the National Education Association and the American Federation of Teachers, charge that the Minnesota Virtual Academy runs afoul of state law because it does not provide adequate supervision by teachers with valid Minnesota teaching licenses. Union representatives quote from the school's own Web site to make their case. The site states that "responsible adults (usually parents) guide students through their daily coursework." It also states that only 20 percent of the instructional program is conducted via computer; the rest consists of activities at home. "That exemplified our point," says Harley Ogata, the union's general counsel.

The state has not yet replied to the lawsuit, and state officials are reluctant to talk in detail about the pending litigation. But Bill Walsh, a spokesman for the Minnesota Department of Education, says the suit involves "a disagreement of legislative intent." The state has certified the academy as an eligible service provider under Minnesota's online- learning law, arguing that certified teachers are sufficiently involved in delivering the curriculum for the Houston program to meet the law's requirements. Kim Ross, superintendent of the Houston district, notes that online students must meet the same state standards and take the same tests as other students.

While Ogata describes the lawsuit as defending a union "core value," specifically the primacy of Minnesota-certified teachers in providing instruction in public schools, the outcome of the case may also shape perceptions of online education's potential to improve rural education. Ross, the Houston superintendent, says the Minnesota Virtual Academy allows him to help educate kids in his 500-student district who have not been successful in traditional classes and to offer a wider variety of courses. He adds that the online school provides his tiny district with a rare opportunity to capture the extra state aid that comes from increased enrollment.

Almost all of the students at the Minnesota Virtual Academy transferred from public schools elsewhere in the state, and the Houston district stands to receive $5,100 for each of them. That will bring more than $1.4million into the district, which this year has a regular budget of $4million. The new money covers the district's expenses to operate the program, including the technology costs and salaries for its teachers. After those expenses are covered, any leftover state money is paid to K12 Inc., a McLean, Virginia-based company that provides the school's curriculum and other services.

"We're aware that if public education isn't leading the charge with online learning, somebody else will," Ross says. "We have to look outside the box."

With such money at stake, it should be no surprise that two Minneapolis-area school systems have joinedEducation Minnesota's lawsuit. The 8,300-student Hopkins district and 11,300-student Burnsville-Eagan-Savage district argue that state funding of the Houston program threatens their own efforts to create online-learning programs.

—By Andrew Trotter

Vol. 15, Issue 4, Page 15

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