The Debate About Online Charter Schools

A recent House Education Committee hearing on repealing an artificial limit on the number of students who can take advantage of online charter public schools featured a full display of the unfounded opposition to allowing parents this choice. The opposition is driven largely by beneficiaries of the public education status quo, and falls into three categories: Fear of competition for school money; lack of trust in parents and potential competitors, and something called the “burden of proof fallacy.”

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A useful characterization of the reactionaries’ opposition was provided by Tom Watkins, former state superintendent of public instruction. Testifying in support of a bill to repeal the online charter cap, Watkins quoted Machiavelli’s The Prince:

For the reformer has enemies in all those who profit by the old order and only lukewarm defenders in all those who would profit by the new order, this luke-warmness arising partly from fear of their adversaries, who have the laws in their favor; and partly from the incredulity of mankind, who do not truly believe in anything new until they have had actual experience of it.

Many conventional school districts fear online charters because they could potentially cut into their own “market share” of students — and the state dollars that are attached to them. This is one reason the Genesee Intermediate School District testified against the bill, even though its own online program (called “GenNET”) offers courses provided by the same company that operates one of Michigan’s two online charter schools (K12, Inc.).

Opponents also display distrust of any learning option not directly controlled by conventional public school districts, regardless of the fact that no child attends an online charter unless his or her parents have decided it’s in their child’s best interest.

In additional to that supreme level of accountability, there are several other layers that apply to Michigan’s online charters. A school board of public officials oversees school operations, and a state institution of higher education ensures the school is meeting the demands of a detailed contract.

Finally, some legislators insist on placing the burden of proof on online charters to immediately demonstrate some undefined measure of “quality.” This works nicely for opponents, who can cherry-pick measures that may suggest the innovative new schools are doing “worse” than others.

These same beneficiaries of the public school status quo, however, wouldn't likely subject their own preferred institutions to a similar burden of proof. What if the burden of proof was instead on conventional school districts to demonstrate that they meet the individual and unique needs of all 1.7 million school-age children in Michigan? There’s already a lot of evidence that regular school districts fail by this measure, as the long waiting lists for online and brick-and-mortar charters shows.

The one real shortcoming of this online charter cap repeal bill is not allowing regular school districts to offer geographically unrestricted online learning options. Once the current online charter school cap is repealed, the Legislature should level the playing field by letting any school district enroll students from anywhere in the state in an online learning experience, if that’s what their parents choose. With 21st century technology, it’s preposterous to limit learning opportunities to lines on a map.

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