Education Opinion

The Yoking of Virtual Schools and Market-Based Reforms

By Justin Reich — September 23, 2012 5 min read
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This is the third part of a four-part series about virtual schools and Open Education policy. The first post argued that if we are going to have virtual schools, 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. The second post examined the development of virtual school policy in Massachusetts and Maine, explained how policies in those states seemed to be benefiting the largest corporate providers of online learning, and advocated for open policy as a way to encourage the development of alternatives to those large providers. This post looks at the increasingly tight connections between online learning and educational privatization.

If you love the promise and potential of online learning, but you aren’t a big fan of the privatization of American education, then you have a dilemma on your hands. In the years, ahead, the two phenomena are going to be ever more closely entwined.

That said, if you love the promise and potential of online, and you love privatization, then you’re in luck, because the advocates of these two movements have yoked themselves together.

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The link between online learning and the free market was envisioned over 40 years ago by Ivan Illich in his book Deschooling Society. In 1970, Illich predicted the emergence of online learning webs that would allow for peer instruction, self-paced study, and a radically increased level of student choice and autonomy. He is the godfather of the DIYU and Edupunk movements, the visionary of peer-to-peer online learning.

He was also a big fan of vouchers.

Illich wrote, “Opportunities for skill-learning can be vastly multiplied if we open the ‘market.’ This depends on matching the right teacher with the right student when he is highly motivated in an intelligent curriculum.”

Illich wrote favorably of “tuition grants,” now commonly called vouchers, a system where tax-dollars for education would be allocated not to schools, but to students, and each individual student could buy the educational experiences as he or she saw fit.

The main problem Illich found with the voucher proposals of his day was that they didn’t go far enough. Kids got their own educational money, but they had to spend it on schools, which Illich described as “giving a lame man a pair of crutches and stipulating that he use them only if the ends are tied together.”

Fast forward 40 years to the present, and voucher advocates have made a major step towards Illich’s vision. Since Milton Friedman and other economists of his era proposed tuition grants, most advocates have argued for letting students buy admission to schools as whole packages. If you don’t like your local public school, buy a slot in a parochial school.

Online tools now make it much more feasible for students to use a hypothetical “backpack of school funds” to purchase courses one at a time: to buy math from Khan Academy, English from your local charter school, science from Texas Instruments, and P.E. from Reebok. School choice used to mean picking from the schools in your area. In the years ahead, it could mean picking courses from anywhere on the Internet.

So if you like digital learning and individual choices for students, then a free market for educational services provides a policy mechanism for students to select those opportunities. If you like a free market for education, then digital learning provides more choices for consumers, including allowing consumers to make choices at the course level.

Organizations like the Fordham Institute, which have traditionally supported free market approaches to education reform, have taken up the banner of online learning. Organizations that appear to have a singular focus on advancing digital learning, like Digital Learning Now, have built free market mechanisms and preferences into their policy prescriptions. (For instance, Digital Learning Now offers this homily to privatization: “Private sector providers have the capital to invest in creativity, which is the hallmark of new learning technologies that effectively engage and educate students. As new technologies enter the market, quality will go up and price will go down.”)

So like I said, if you like both of these policy directions, then you get a two-fer. If you are an advocate of online learning and publicly-funded schools that serve as community anchors, it’s harder to know what to do.

One approach is to offer a broad rejection of the movement for online learning, as folks like Diane Ravitch have done. If you peruse through some of Ravitch’s posts on online learning, gaming or so forth, you’ll find some pushback in the comments from those who support her views on education reform broadly, but think she isn’t seeing the full picture on technology. (Scott McLeod had a good post making this argument). Sometimes Ravitch will throw a token of support to the general idea of the potential of technology and learning, but the thrust of her argument seems to be that virtual schools are better understood as vehicles for privatization than vehicles for new models of learning.

If she’s right, then all the progressive educators out there cheering for online learning and online courses may be quite surprised when those courses are provided by News Corporation and Pearson.

For my own part, I’m trying to balance a cautious optimism of online learning with a skepticism of the privatization of education. My skepticism isn’t based in an inherent fear of the market (greatest engine of growth the world has ever known, etc.), so much as it’s rooted in an evaluation of the current state of for-profit virtual schooling, which at present looks to me to be pretty shoddy.

If online learning and privatization are increasingly yoked, how do you support one without advancing the cause of the other?

The best answer that I’ve come up with is supporting open education policy: providing preferential treatment to online providers that agree to primarily use openly licensed online materials (saves money!) and share the resources, curriculum, and platforms that they create under the same Creative Commons licenses (helps teachers and students everywhere!). A commitment to openness ensures that taxpayer funding of education produces curricula and tools that are part of the public commons. Requiring virtual school providers to at least identify their commitment to openness will help separate those whose primary focus is on the expansion of educational opportunity broadly from those who see educational markets primarily as opportunities to maximize shareholder value.

And for that full argument, I’ll point you back to the previous post in this series. My final post in the series will share some of the specific policy and regulatory recommendations that I have for building open policy into the virtual school approval process.

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.