Education Opinion

The Solution to Virtual Schools is to Open Them (Part II)

By Justin Reich — September 07, 2012 8 min read
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I’m writing a short series of posts on virtual school policy, and this series starts and culminates with a policy recommendation: states should give preference to virtual schools that make a commitment to Open Education policy and to sharing their curricula and other innovations with the world.

I was inspired to write on this by some legislative advocacy that I did this summer in Massachusetts, and by a terrific piece published by Colin Woodward in the Maine Sunday Telegram, which traced the influence of national organizations and companies on Maine’s virtual school policies.

Full time-virtual schools are an incredibly complicated issue: for districts, for states, for the nation, and for me personally. On the one hand, in our population of millions of kids, we have millions of different brains, and some of those brains would be better served by full time virtual schooling than any other model. The seriously ill, the shy, the bullied, the Olympians, the artists, the hackers, the connected learners, and others all might find online schools the best pathway to educational success. In addition, it’s compelling to imagine how a well-designed virtual schooling infrastructure could ensure that small districts, like those in Maine and elsewhere around the country, could offer a full slate of educational options, such as foreign languages, AP classes, and so forth.

At the same time, I’m a strong believer that the tradition of publicly-controlled, local schooling has served this nation extremely well in many respects (though the gross inequalities are a serious problem and national embarrassment). I’m very concerned about efforts by free-market advocates to use online learning as a wedge to advance educational privatization and the voucherization of schooling that Milton Friedman dreamed up in the 50s. The emerging research (see also here) and reporting on virtual schools suggests that many of them, especially those run by some of the largest for-profit providers, are serving students and taxpayers poorly, even as they deliver profits to shareholders. (I’ll write more about this connection between virtual schools and the school voucher movement in a future post.)

My own home state of Massachusetts is contemplating virtual schools legislation right now, and I’ve struggled to find the right position to advocate. I’d love to see Massachusetts have a world-class, national exemplar virtual school, and I’d hate to see a for-profit-backed virtual school siphon public dollars while mis-educating kids (I’m not, in principle, opposed to a well-regulated, for-profit company taking public dollars and doing a really great job). So it’s getting close to my home, too. One of the best potential solutions to ensuring high quality virtual schools is to Open them, to require that they institutionally advocate open policy, open licensing, and open education, and that they make a commitment to serving not just students on their rosters, but students throughout the state and throughout the world.

But let’s start in Maine.

The story in Maine is that with the arrival of a Republican gubernatorial administration, two organizations: Jeb Bush’s Foundation for Educational Excellence and the American Legislative Exchange Council found receptive legislators and education administrators to advance their online learning agenda. They passed legislation authorizing the creation of statewide virtual schools through the state charter school commission. The deal was that only non-profit entities could sponsor charter schools, although they could contract with for-profit providers.

Two non-profit groups advanced applications, and both of these non-profit boards were “pass-through” entities. They provided a thin non-profit shell for two of the biggest for-profit providers, K12 and Pearson’s Connected Education, to create statewide schools. Both applications essentially turn the entire operation of the school, including the key leadership hires, to the providers. Woodward’s excellent reporting reveals how the boards appear to be entirely taking direction from their for-profit partners. Both applications were rejected by Maine’s charter school commission (over the governor’s objections) for failing to demonstrate sufficient capacity to oversee the for-profit entities. Woodward quotes the charter commission’s chair:

By statute, you have to have a governing board that has an arm's-length relationship with any organization they would hire to perform the virtual contract," says the charter commission's chair, Jana Lapoint. "Those contracts need to be scrutinized very carefully because unfortunately they don't have that sort of relationship."

Maine is very fortunate that the charter commission showed both civic responsibility and political backbone, and that they sent these initial proposals back to the drawing board. Even still, it’s deeply disturbing that the only virtual school applications came from national providers.

Maine has over a decade of experience with a one-to-one laptop program for middle school students, and a deep bench of researchers, teacher-educators, teachers, and school leaders who could come together to form a terrific, homegrown program entirely devoted to the interests of Maine students (without a divided interest between students and shareholders). Especially when charter school legislation comes with short turnaround times, the national providers are much better suited to quickly write applications than local constituencies, even though Maine is probably one of the state’s best positioned to go local.

Virtual Schools Coming to Massachusetts

Massachusetts is facing some of the same dilemmas as Maine. We have a bill, the Commonwealth Virtual Schools Act, moving through the legislature that would allow local school districts or consortia of districts to open a charter. Like the Maine bill, we would require districts to be the sponsors, though they can pass-through the operations to for-profits. Like the Maine bill, the time from the bill’s passage to the application process is incredibly short, (as written the as of yet unpassed bill would require applications for 2013 by Oct. 1). The for-profit companies have a huge advantage with these short lead times. If the bill passes when the legislature comes back into session, I predict that Massachusetts will see exactly what Maine saw, that a few districts or collaboratives act as pass-throughs for the big for-profit chain operators, and we won’t see a legitimate homegrown solution. If our only virtual school is a clone of programs developed in other states, then Massachusetts, a national and global leader in education, will not have the national exemplar that we ought to have.

But the policy here is tricky. I don’t think it makes sense to do an outright ban of for-profit entities. If a for-profit company can run an exemplar school, under the careful regulation of a local district or collaborative, and pass some money along to shareholders or owners, then I’m not inherently opposed. I think the track record of existing for-profit virtual schools suggests that that is unlikely, but they should get a fair hearing in the application process. I have some sympathy for the original, experimental spirit of charters. (I’m parting ways with the likes of Diane Ravitch on virtual schools here).

I also think it’s clear from the Maine example that local entities are very unlikely to be well-suited to regulate their for-profit partners, and are much more likely to be pass-through organizations. Putting things nominally under local control or non-profit control (especially under a short lead time) doesn’t appear to be a viable policy mechanism for ensuring that a for-profit contractor will be well-regulated.

So what policy or regulatory mechanisms can be put in place to balance the playing field for home-grown options?

One option is to require long lead times for applications. By statute, Maine didn’t do that, but the charter commission basically made that happen by rejecting the first two virtual school applications. Short lead times to applications strong favor established national interests. Local groups need time to build teams, solicit seed funding, and cook up applications. Massachusetts is in the process of making the same mistake as Maine (though our regulators could fix that problem as also happened in Maine).

Another option, as I introduced in my first post, is to give preference to applicants that make a commitment to Open Education. One of the best ways to ensure that school founders have the civic mission of schooling as their core focus is to show a legislative and regulatory preference for “Open Policy,” a commitment to using openly licensed Open Education Resources and a commitment to sharing any materials created by the school under a Creative Commons or other Open license. The national exemplar of this right now is the Open High School of Utah which has a commitment to using Open Educational Resources and shares their resources under an open license.

Open Policy is defensible and desireable both from the right (using openly licensed materials saves taxpayer dollars!) and from the left (using and creating openly licensed materials treats education as a public good!). It can be a powerful tool for regulators in state education departments, and their proposal reviewer partners, to use in justifying decisions that show preference to proposals in the public interest. Schools that have a commitment to Open Policy don’t just serve their students, they improve education across the commonwealth and across the world.

I’ll write two more posts on this. The next post is going to be about the connections between virtual schools and the school voucher agenda. It’s going to be increasingly difficult in the years ahead to advocate for online learning without advancing the interests of those interested in school privatization. The voucher folks have every right to make their case in the public sphere, but online learning advocates who opposed privatization are going to have to be more nuanced in their argument. The last post will be about more specific strategies for advocating for open policy in virtual school legislation and regulation. I’ll share some of the correspondence that I’ve sent to my own legislators.

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.