I have long been of the opinion that teacher’s unions and government educational bureaucrats are fighting a losing battle, and despite their most ardent opposition, parental choice with respect to schooling will inevitably win the day. I am therefore pleased to read about the rise in availability and popularity of online schools in today’s New York Times.
From my perspective, this development represents the confluence of two fundamental forces that motivate my optimism regarding educational freedom. On the one hand, we have the primacy of the inherent concern of parents for the intellectual and emotional development of their offspring. On the other, we have remarkable improvements in technology facilitating the essential communicative aspect of education. As the latter rises to meet the first, we see a situation in which innovative new companies and institutions work to expand children’s educational opportunities beyond the relatively paltry offerings presently dictated by their geographical location. It may strike some as a bold vision, but efforts like those in Wisconsin should suggest that it is far from unrealistic.
I should note that I am not blind to some of the potential pitfalls associated with online learning. In addition to imparting academic knowledge, it has long been proposed that one of the key functions of schools is to equip students with vital social skills and what we might call emotional knowledge that will allow them to become responsible members of adult society. To the extent that internet schooling limits direct personal interaction, it may hinder somewhat this aspect of personal development. It is also possible that some parents may be poor stewards of their children’s education and merely plop them down in front of the computer screen, giving them no guidance and doing nothing to monitor their progress. These things are possible, but I think it important that we keep things in perspective and recognize that most parents are keenly interested in all aspects of their children’s welfare, that they seek to engage them in a variety of social contexts outside of school, and that the importance of getting a good education has become such a pervasive message in our culture that very few are likely to neglect it entirely.
So, then, what should we make of those who criticize these new online schools? Based on the accounts presented in the Times article, it seems the primary complaints are about money:
“Despite enthusiastic support from parents, the schools have met with opposition from some educators, who say elementary students may be too young for Internet learning, and from teachers, unions and school boards, partly because they divert state payments from the online student’s home district.”
“Pennsylvania has also debated the financing of virtual charter schools. Saying such schools were draining them financially,”
“The district receives annual state payments of $6,050 for each of its 800 students, which it uses to pay teachers and buy its online curriculum from K12.
Saying he suspected “corporate profiteering” in online schooling, State Senator John Lehman, a Democrat who is chairman of the education committee, last month proposed cutting the payments to virtual schools to $3,000 per student.”
There are those that profit immensely from the current system which in some locations like Washington, D.C. devotes close to $20,000 per pupil. This makes the $6,050 spent in Milwaukee look like a pittance, yet the participants in the online schools are “enthusiastic” and “infuriated” by proposals that would seek to destroy them. The article also notes that in Colorado, “one school, run by a rural district, was using four licensed teachers to teach 1,500 students across the state.” The response of teacher’s unions and legislators was to beef up regulation, presumably to prevent this type of efficiency from taking hold in masse. The question, of course, is why? Why should governments be interfering with what thousands of people regard as a successful service? Whatever answer they provide is sure to be couched in the language of children’s welfare, but parents’ present satisfaction undermines this proposition.
Finally, my favorite part of the article is near the end:
A state court dismissed the case, but in December an appeals court said the academy was violating a state law requiring that public school teachers be licensed.
The ruling infuriated parents like Bob Reber, an insurance salesman who lives in Fond du Lac and whose 8-year-old daughter is a student at the academy. “According to this ruling, if I want to teach my daughter to tie her shoes, I’d need a license,” Mr. Reber said.
Not so, said Mary Bell, the union president: “The court did not say that parents cannot teach their children — it said parents cannot teach their children at taxpayers’ expense.”
Apparently, Ms. Bell forgets that parents and taxpayers are one in the same, so let us correct her oversight and see what we make of her analysis: “The court did not say that parents cannot teach their children—it said parents cannot teach their children at their own expense.” Absurd, is it not?