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Are Virtual Schools a Sham?

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We are hearing a lot about online learning and virtual schools, a field that is growing fast -- perhaps too fast. As educators we must be vigilant to distinguish between promising practices and flat-out corruption and greed.

Online courses are often beneficial to public schools, particularly those in small or rural school districts that do not have the capacity to hire teachers for specialized courses, such as foreign languages, or schools that need to provide advanced or remedial classes for just a few students.

Virtual schools, meanwhile, are a messy, emerging field with little data to analyze so far. Thirty states now have full-time, multi-district virtual schools that enrolled an estimated 250,000 students, amounting to an annual 25 percent increase in the field, according to the International Association for K-12 Online Learning, a group representing providers.

Several forces are driving this growth: a desire to offer a larger selection of courses, a desire to engage homeschoolers and others who may not choose to attend a traditional public school, and of course, the opportunity for big profits by some providers.

A few common-sense ground rules must be in place if online learning and virtual schools are to work well. Our challenge is to ensure that these courses are as rigorous as students would receive in a traditional classroom, students are evaluated fairly, and teachers and administrators are held accountable for student progress. The Florida Virtual School, one of the first state-run providers, shows some promising practices.

But we must be wary of anyone who claims that online learning is going to be a silver bullet to transform learning. As recent articles have found out, many advocates are barely bothering to disguise themselves as impartial observers -- and some lawmakers don't seem to care.

For instance, I recently came across an article by John E. Chubb, a visiting fellow at the Hoover Institute and founder and chief executive officer of Leeds Global Partners, a financial investment firm. Chubb takes aim at local governance as an obstacle to online learning and proposes a system where every family would have the option of a government-funded virtual education for their children.

Chubb and other proponents are basing their arguments on an unquestioning faith in free markets. But we need only look to the predatory practices of the post-secondary for-profit institutions to find out how not to do this. The U.S. Department of Education has taken on some of these institutions that charge exorbitant rates and leave students -- many low-income minorities -- with crushing debts and no chance of employment.

Interestingly, while many proponents of virtual learning tout cost savings, Chubb actually proposes that to provide the same per-pupil funding to virtual providers as bricks-and-mortar buildings. This could end up costing taxpayers more than they currently spend -- with a much higher risk of a student dropping out.

If you "follow the money" it's not hard to see why: Leeds Global Partners has significant investments in for-profit online learning, including the Education Management Company (the parent company of online institutions The Art Institutes, Argosy University, Brown Mackie College, and South University) as well as Nobel Learning Communities, Inc., which operates a private online K-12 college preparatory school. He's also a co-founder and senior executive vice president of EdisonLearning, a school management company that has ventured into online learning.

This is, unfortunately, is a common conflict of interest. This article from The Nation uncovers many more.

And this Sept. 2011 article in The Week quotes a student who accumulated $150,000 in debt at the Art Institute of Philadelphia: "I don't think I learned anything at the Art Institute [of Philadelphia], other than how to get scammed by somebody."

As this field emerges, we must also consider that the needs of K-12 students are vastly different than adults who seek online higher education degrees -- we must take into account that a level of maturity and self-discipline that is required -- not to mention the desire for actual interaction with peers and teachers. Anecdotally, we know that some virtual schools' students aren't even logging in -- and these are likely the students who most need to be engaged in some form of schooling.

Until we have the data to show that virtual schools are meeting the challenge of educating our diverse populations of students, lawmakers must take a hard look at these schools and their sponsors, hold all parties to the same high standards as traditional public schools, and shut down any operations that are wasting students' opportunities and taxpayer funds.

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