Party Lines in Virtual Schooling?

By Ian Quillen — June 17, 2010 2 min read
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Is virtual schooling a Red or Blue cause?

I’ll confess that, for better or worse, I entered this beat assuming most supporters of online education would fall into the progressive/liberal camp. But I’m starting to sense that, at the very least, the cause can be selectively championed by both sides. Moreover, it may be one that has been more effectively championed by (fiscal and libertarian) conservatives.

A May policy brief by the Florida free-market think tank The James Madison Institute heaps more praise on the already-revered Florida Virtual School. Claiming that virtual schools are more equipped to prepare students for a “knowledge-based economy” and able to do so at a lesser cost per student, the brief pushes Florida to seize on its role as a national leader in online learning to shift public education to a structure where the time and progress of a school day takes a backseat to a focus on the quantity and quality of concepts mastered.

Pretty uncontroversial, nonpartisan stuff, right? While the National Collegiate Athletic Association has expressed its position that virtual education courses that do not mandate some time frame for completion may not require proper rigor, I think it’s a safe bet that most instructors, brick-and-mortar or otherwise, would love the benefit of some extra time to help students who are eager to learn but not the quickest of learners.

Yet, in Florida, at least, the issue of virtual education is, or at least was, a conservative cause during FLVS’s inception. Julie Young, the chief executive officer of FLVS, said in an April meeting with reporters from Education Week that a key spark for the creation of FLVS was Republican Jeb Bush’s presence in the governor’s office at the time, as well as Republican majorities in the legislature.

Of course, with the recent release of the National Education Technology Plan and the National Broadband Plan by the Obama administration, it would be hard to say Republicans own virtual education advocacy.

Karen Cator, who heads technology initiatives for the U.S. Education Department, told EdWeek, “Technology allows us to create more engaging and compelling learning opportunities for students and allows us to personalize the learning experience,” indicating a willingness to increase blended learning opportunities. And one of the broadband plan’s key points was expanding high-speed Internet access to all communities by upgrading current telephone infrastructure to ensure low-income and rural students can gain necessary Internet access to undertake online education assignments.

Perhaps it’s more a matter of how you frame virtual schooling. Conservatives seem to boast the benefits of expanding opportunities to all students while streamlining costs for the education provider. Liberals appear to advocate the benefits of leveling the playing field for disadvantaged or geographically isolated students.

Is that a fair analysis? And if so, is either approach working better?

A version of this news article first appeared in the Digital Education blog.