Classroom Technology

Identity Crisis

By Andrew Trotter — January 01, 2004 3 min read
  • Save to favorites
  • Print

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 joined Education 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.

Related Tags:

A version of this article appeared in the January 02, 2004 edition of Teacher as Identity Crisis


This content is provided by our sponsor. It is not written by and does not necessarily reflect the views of Education Week's editorial staff.
Mathematics Webinar
Addressing Unfinished Learning in Math: Providing Tutoring at Scale
Most states as well as the federal government have landed on tutoring as a key strategy to address unfinished learning from the pandemic. Take math, for example. Studies have found that students lost more ground
Content provided by Yup Math Tutoring
Classroom Technology Webinar Building Better Blended Learning in K-12 Schools
The pandemic and the increasing use of technology in K-12 education it prompted has added renewed energy to the blended learning movement as most students are now learning in school buildings (and will likely continue

EdWeek Top School Jobs

Teacher Jobs
Search over ten thousand teaching jobs nationwide — elementary, middle, high school and more.
View Jobs
Principal Jobs
Find hundreds of jobs for principals, assistant principals, and other school leadership roles.
View Jobs
Administrator Jobs
Over a thousand district-level jobs: superintendents, directors, more.
View Jobs
Support Staff Jobs
Search thousands of jobs, from paraprofessionals to counselors and more.
View Jobs

Read Next

Classroom Technology The Number One Reason Students Still Lack Internet at Home: Parents Can't Afford It
Many families can't afford the cost of internet connectivity, even if they live in areas that are wired for broadband, a new report shows.
2 min read
Image of a student working on a computer from home.
Classroom Technology Facebook, Twitter, and TikTok Make Teachers' Jobs More Difficult and Dangerous, Union Says
Social media spreads misinformation and emboldens students to damage school property, the National Education Association says.
2 min read
Image of hands on a keyboard with social media icons popping up.
Classroom Technology Combating the Problems With Facebook and Instagram: 8 Tips for Teachers
Facebook did extensive research on its negative impact on children’s mental health, but didn't act on those findings, a whistleblower says.
5 min read
Image of a child's hand on a keyboard.
Classroom Technology Q&A How Much Screen Time Is Too Much? The Answer Is 'It Depends'
Educators need to consider the context, the content, and the individual child when deciding how much screen time kids should have.
4 min read
High school students in Coral Gables, Fla., work together on a tablet during a history class.
High school students in Coral Gables, Fla., work together on a tablet during a history class last school year.
Josh Richie for Education Week