Opinion
Infrastructure Opinion

Should School Choice Come Via the Internet?

By J.H. Snider — January 09, 2002 6 min read
Increasingly, children are able to choose between educational programs not by commuting, but by telecommuting.

What is the best technology to give students a choice—and thus create competition—among K-12 education providers: commuting or telecommuting? The current debate about school choice assumes that if you don’t like the local school, you should be able to drive, bus, or subway your child across town to a school you like better. But physically moving children from place to place may be an increasingly outdated approach when it comes to choice. Increasingly, children are able to choose between educational programs not by commuting, but by telecommuting.

Here’s how it works: Johnny can’t learn calculus at his local high school. But plenty of educational services may offer first-rate calculus courses over the Internet. Voila: Johnny logs on to one of these services during study hall, completes the calculus course over the course of the year, and receives full credit for a task well done.

As a technology of choice, telecommuting offers considerable advantages over old-fashioned commuting, the first of which is the flexibility to choose between courses rather than schools. This is a simple matter of economics. The expense of transporting students across a city for a single math course is prohibitively expensive. Not only would each student practically need his own full-time chauffeur and limo, but also as much as half of a student’s day would be spent in transit. These costs mean that all forms of traditional school choice (public, private, or charter) involve a choice of a large item, a whole school.

In contrast, telecommuting, by bringing education to the student rather than the other way around, gives students the flexibility to choose something as minor as a single course. By way of analogy, commuter-based choice is like using a nuclear bomb: a powerful weapon, but overkill when it comes to relatively minor skirmishes. Telecommuting choice is more suited to fine-tuning problems with existing curricula and personnel systems.

Choice that relies on commuting limits competition because it can increase choice only within a narrow geographic region.

Choice that relies on commuting limits competition because it can increase choice only within a narrow geographic region. Even in urban areas, the number of schools a student can feasibly attend is minimal, rarely more than a half- dozen. In rural and even some suburban areas, where transportation costs are high, the notion of school choice, except at boarding schools, is ludicrous. As a result, K-12 education tends to be a natural monopoly except in densely populated areas. Even in big cities, few students have more than a handful of choices. With telecommuting, however, the world comes to the student, opening up an almost boundless array of choices.

The combination of greater automation and scale economies from a global market should also make telecourses and information about them far more cost-effective than traditional choice. The narrow range of students that can be affordably transported to a course circumscribes its potential market to little more than a neighborhood. And much of what passes for individualized instruction is actually the same droning pre-prepared speech and worksheets presented year after year. Consider replacing today’s 150,000 local Algebra 1 courses, serving 5 million students at a cost of $2 billion per year, with 50 national Algebra 1 courses serving the same students on the same budget. Assuming this could be done with no loss of quality, the cost advantage of the telecommuting-based system over the commuting one would be 3,000-to-1. The efficiency gains could then be used to increase course quality, decrease costs, or some combination of both.

Of course, the advantages of telecommuting are counterbalanced by disadvantages, including primitive technology and courses. Broadband Internet connections are expensive and not even close to replicating the fidelity of face-to-face communication. And first-generation telecourses are still generally scarce, mediocre, and expensive. But it seems fair to assume that, in the long run, telecommunications and course technology will improve, thus mitigating these disadvantages.

At the moment, the natural niche for commuting-based choice is poor students in the inner city. They do not have the resources to shop for good schools, whether they be private schools or good suburban public schools. But they are close enough to other schools to make commuting-based choice a viable option.

The Internet allows a one-room schoolhouse to offer as varied a curriculum as the largest modern university.

In contrast, the natural niche for telecommuting-based choice is students with relatively minor problems, such as a single bad teacher (as opposed to a school full of bad teachers), or intense interests not satisfied by locally available courses. The students’ motivation must be great because the limitations of today’s telecommunications and courseware are also great.

In the long run, commuting- and telecommuting-based choice may demonstrate powerful synergies. The Internet allows a one-room schoolhouse to offer as varied a curriculum as the largest modern university. Consequently, the school of the future could be much smaller than the school of today. To the extent that telecommuting allows for smaller schools, it may also greatly increase the number of schools that can feasibly be accessed by transportation.

A few government-led reforms could speed the development and adoption of genuine telecommuting-based choice. Because this type of choice involves breaking geographic barriers, it is logical for the federal government to take the lead.

One reform might be making federal grants to local schools for information technology (some $3.75 billion last year) contingent on those schools’ allowing students to use the technology to take telecourses for credit on school property during school hours and with appropriate supervision. This technology includes federally funded access to Internet2, the super-high-speed network currently available only at major universities but soon to roll out to K-12 schools.

Another reform would be creating a national system to accredit telecourses. Overriding state teacher-licensing laws for companies that provide telecourses across state lines, and providing vouchers for needy students to take telecourses, would also help. Ultimately, local public schools should be encouraged to provide students with vouchers to take telecourses, with the voucher amount set at the school system’s cost to provide a traditional classroom instructor.

In Michigan, Gov. John Engler’s Michigan Virtual High School provides a model for many of these ideas. It provides 2,000 scholarships a year for high school students in the state to take Advanced Placement and other courses not available in their local high schools. But this is a pittance compared with what needs to be done.

The Bush administration’s major education reform legislation, the “No Child Left Behind” package, suffers from an antediluvian technological vision. When President Bush calls for “greater choice for parents,” he clearly means commuter-based school choice. And when he seeks “escape routes for children trapped in failing schools,” he clearly means only poor inner-city kids, not the daily misery of millions of suburban and rural children who may feel trapped in a classroom with an incompetent teacher and a lowest-common-denominator curriculum.

The time has come to embrace a broader vision for choice, one based on the information-technology revolution that is still only in its infancy.

J. H. Snider is a Markle Fellow at the New America Foundation in Washington.

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A version of this article appeared in the January 09, 2002 edition of Education Week as Should School Choice Come Via the Internet?

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