The Nation’s Online Learning Omission

The Nation’s recent online learning expose, How Online Learning Companies Bought America’s Schools, in its zeal to connect various dots into a narrative of a corporate public education takeover, makes critical errors. It falsely equates K-12 online learning with privatization, leading to an incomplete and flawed political analysis. More importantly though, the article makes a credibility-killing factual omission. Here’s how the article describes online education in Florida:

If the national movement to “reform” public education through vouchers, charters and privatization has a laboratory, it is Florida. It was one of the first states to undertake a program of “virtual schools”—charters operated online, with teachers instructing students over the Internet—as well as one of the first to use vouchers to channel taxpayer money to charter schools run by for-profits….

In Florida, only fourteen months after Crist handed a major victory to teachers unions, a new governor, Rick Scott, signed a radical bill that could have the effect of replacing hundreds of teachers with computer avatars. Scott, a favorite of the Tea Party, appointed Levesque as one of his education advisers. His education law expanded the Florida Virtual School to grades K-5, authorized the spending of public funds on new for-profit virtual schools and created a requirement that all high school students take at least one online course before graduation….

A combination of factors has made this year what Moe calls an “inflection point” in the march toward public school privatization. For one thing, recession-induced fiscal crises and austerity have pressured states to cut spending. In some cases, as in Florida, where educating students at the Florida Virtual School costs nearly $2,500 less than at traditional schools, such reform has been sold as a budget fix.

But, here’s what the article left out: Florida Virtual School, which is prominently connected with privatization in four separate paragraphs of the article, is not a private corporation. It is, instead, a state-owned and state-run institution. There are no shareholders. There are, though, real, live teachers. Led by a former elementary school teacher, the school employs over a 1,000 state certified teachers, almost all of whom have also taught in traditional classrooms. It is fully accredited by two major agencies: The Southern Association of Colleges and Schools (SACS) and The Commission on International and Trans-Regional Accreditation. And, while it is not a charter school, it was the country’s first state-wide Internet-based public high school and has enrolled hundreds of thousands of public school students since 1997.

Florida Virtual School is, in short, a poster child for public sector innovation.

But none of that fit into author Fang’s narrative. It would have made a simple story into the complex one that it is.

K-12 online learning is vast and varied, crossing both political and ideological lines. Programs range from Stanford Online High School to specialized dropout prevention high schools run in partnership with community-based nonprofits toRocketship, which plows savings from technology into extended learning opportunities and higher teacher salaries, to the North Carolina Virtual Public School, a signature program of Democratic Governor Bev Purdue (launched when she was the state’s Lt. Governor). Full-time virtual schools, the majority of which are run under contract to a for-profit schooling company, are part of this landscape. So, too, are numerous traditional school districts — including those who run their own programs and those who oversee contracts with private providers.

Within this landscape, as in any new arena, there are areas of serious concern. Among full-time online learning programs, what we know of performance is decidedly mixed. And, Fang’s article is correct to point out the moneyed influence and lack of transparency from operators like Ohio’s White Hat Management. We’ve been writing about these issues for several years.

But, just as alternative energy should not be defined by Solyndra, neither should online learning be defined by White Hat. Strong oversight to ensure both high quality learning experiences and accountability for public funds is essential. So, too, is knowledgeable and objective reporting.

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