Education Opinion

The Solution to Virtual Public Schools is to Open Them

By Justin Reich — September 04, 2012 2 min read
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This weekend, Colin Woodward of the Maine Sunday Telegram published a terrific piece of journalism detailing the efforts of national organizations and figures—including Jeb’s Bush’s foundation devoted to online learning and two of the largest corporations selling virtual school programs—to influence virtual school policy in the state of Maine.

Virtual schools are, as we say up he-ah, wicked complicated. I’d like to propose one piece of the solution to getting virtual schools that make state education better: Open them.

Here’s the short version: States should require that virtual school operator applicants declare their position regarding open licensing and distribution of educational resources. Preference should be given to applicants that agree to use Open Educational Resources and platforms, to openly license the resources that they create, and to broadly share their curriculum and program innovations with the world.

This requirement is very much in keeping with the original spirit of charter schools, as experiments in the service of public education. Inserting statewide virtual schools into education ecosystems can impose fiscal burdens on local districts, so virtual schools should have a special obligation to give back to their state with innovations in programs and resources. The Open High School of Utah is at present the peerless model of this mission to improve the education not just of students on Open High School’s roster, but students across Utah and all over the world. The gold standards for virtual school regulators should be the goal of approving online schools that improve learning for all students in the state.

Requiring a commitment to Open Education will separate applicants who are primarily concerned with the civic mission of education from those overly influenced by financial interests.

This Open policy can be implemented either at the legislative level or at the regulatory level. Legislatures can mandate a preference for Open in bills, or regulators and state education agencies can build a preference for Open into applications. A mandate for Open gives reviewers and regulators a powerful lever for identifying and supporting virtual school operators working with the long-term educational interests of the state at heart.

That’s the short version, the long version is going to take me a few more posts to spell out. I’m hoping to cover:

  • the key features of what happened in Maine
  • what is happening in Massachusetts and how I’m trying to advocate for Open policy in my home state
  • why virtual schools are so closely tied to vouchers and the movement to privatize education
  • and why you should support open policy in regards to virtual schools in your own state.

(When I write down a plan in public like that, I’m more likely to actually do it.)

Virtual schools have the potential to be powerful elements in a comprehensive educational ecosystem, and they also run the risk of radically reshaping (destroying might be a better word) the community and civic functions of neighborhood schools. This is a really important issue, and one that lots of constituencies, from the public to edtech enthusiasts, need to wrap their heads around. I’ll see if I can help make some sense of it in the days ahead.

For regular updates, follow me on Twitter at @bjfr and for my papers, presentations and so forth, visit EdTechResearcher.

The opinions expressed in EdTech Researcher are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.