Cyber Schools — Michigan Could Learn from the Pennsylvania Experiment


In the wake of the rush to open charters and cybers in Michigan over the past few months, corporations vying for student dollars are making doorbuster sales look tame. Michigan would be wise to ask: Just how much accountability and transparency exists among these new enterprises? Lawmaker Douglas Geiss (D) just introduced House Bill 4032 which would bring cyber schools to the same reporting standard as traditional public schools regarding disclosure of instructional materials. The bill would amend the Revised School Code on only this very narrow concern — a baby step towards transparency. But, given the free license the Michigan legislature has thus far afforded cybers, this bill will likely stall in committee. 

Its been nearly a year since Democracy Tree covered its first story on cyber schools. In the course of research, various Internet searches are conducted, and in February of 2012 a search for “cyber-schools” yielded a first page of results with multiple articles and scholarly research on the subject. Fast forward to January of 2013 and we find K-12 Inc. getting top-billing on Google Ads, and scrolling down, the for-profit cyber corporations appear over and over again.

Not to imply cyber learing does not have a legitimate place in our public education system — it serves students who are, for a variety of reasons, unable to attend a brick and mortar facility — physical and mental health conditions, travel and bullying are all valid reasons to opt out of a traditional learning environment. But parents who make this choice because they think its going to be better, based on a sales pitch and a prayer, may be short-changing their child’s education.

Pennsylvania has been in the cyber game for a full decade, and their enthusiasm for the concept appears to be well on the wane. The state’s lawmakers are poised to do much more than tweak a tiny transparency clause — they are prepared to put the brakes on the growth of the enterprise by limiting funding for its expansion.

Pennsylvania Education Secretary, Ron Tamalis, rejected applications this week for eight new cyber-schools citing they “lack adequate evidence and sufficient information of how prospective students would be offered quality academic programs.” — a broad transparency issue. He went further to imply that these schools may be in it just for a quick buck, because they lacked a sound financial plan.

A recent evaluation of Pennsylvania cyber-schools showed that none in the state met requirements — a finding so shocking that charter schools asked to be evaluated separately from their online cousins. Rumors swirl that the state’s legislature is toying with limiting future funding for cyber-schools, with 34,000 students already participating in this educational gamble, lawmakers are hesitant to pave the way for further cyber inroads in Pennsylvania public schools.

Mechanicsburg Area School District superintendent, Mark Leidy, recently expressed the frustration local school officials feel over the funding issue thusly: 

“The mixed message for school districts is hard to understand…In one respect, we are told, and we accept, that we are accountable for the education and achievement of our students. Yet, if our expectations or standards are met with resistance, individual families can elect to go to another school at a significant cost to our taxpayers. If the issue is one of choice, and families need to exercise an option for their child to receive classes online, then our district provides this opportunity at half the cost of what outside providers charge.”

Parents are opting out of online opportunities offered by traditional public schools in favor of for-profit schools with a poor track record, and taxpayer dollars are following those bad decisions. Pennsylvania is wise to check the metastasizing of cybers before it’s too late.

Michigan could learn from this.

Amy Kerr Hardin This article also appears in Voters Legislative Transparency Project


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