Thursday, February 9, 2012

Important Michigan Parents for Schools Legislative Alert

The House Education Committee just approved a bill that would remove all restrictions on entirely online charter schools, so-called "cyber schools." Please join Michigan Parents for Schools in asking the full House to put the brakes on this legislation.
Online "cyber" schools were first allowed two years ago as part of Michigan's application for Federal Race to the Top funding. While we didn't win the money, we were left with the hastily written changes to our education policy. Under current law, however, only two online schools were authorized, each with a limit on the number of students they could enroll. After two years of operation, the Michigan Department of Education would issue a report on how well the schools worked. We are now halfway through the second year.
Senate Bill 619 would short-circuit that process, and free "cyber schools" from all restrictions right away. To us, this smacks less of an effort to improve education than an effort to open up lucrative business opportunities for the private firms which run these schools.
As parents, we have to wonder how many students would really do well in an all-online school. How do you do online kindergarten, for example? Yet these firms claim they can. But can they provide the opportunities for socialization, for collaborative work, for extra-curricular activities that a physical school would provide?
But our biggest concern is about the practical aspects of online schools. Students work mostly with a "learning coach" at home, who is usually a parent or other relative. Yet the cyber school company gets the full per-pupil payment just for providing online lessons and some equipment. These schools say that they will limit student-teacher ratios, but how will anyone know? Finally, with their profit on the line, how can we be sure that these private firms will put their students' interests ahead of their shareholders?
The experience of other states with these kinds of schools (and some of the same companies) is not positive. Not only was student achievement disappointing, but there were recurring problems with padded enrollment numbers and balooning (but hidden) student to teacher ratios. [Links to some news articles are printed below.]
Sure, online learning is here to stay, and it can help some students if we use it wisely. But virtual schools, operated by for-profit companies with little chance for outside oversight because they are completely online, ought to be approached very cautiously. It's too easy for students to be on the losing end of the bargain.
Take action today!
Click here to read our letter to committee members on our worries about incentives for online school operators.

Some recent press articles on virtual schools around the US:
Success of Florida Virtual School is difficult to measure
By Rebecca Catalanello and Marlene Sokol
Tampa Bay Times - Sunday, January 8, 2012
Students of Online Schools Are Lagging
By Jenny Anderson
New York Times, January 6, 2012
Far fewer of them are proving proficient on standardized tests compared with their peers in other privately managed charter schools and in traditional public schools.