More on Virtual Schools

Susan Troller has an article in the Cap Times about the contrasting approaches to virtual schooling adopted by the Middleton and McFarland School Districts.  The article quotes me, and cites my previous blog post on the McFarland virtual school, to the effect that I am no fan of virtual schools.  The article also advances our understanding of McFarland’s relationship with K12, Inc., the publicly-traded corporation that operates McFarland’s virtual school.

Some elaboration is in order.  I’m not against the incorporation of on-line classes into our, or any other school district’s, curriculum.  And it really wouldn’t matter if I liked it or not – increased use of on-line offerings is clearly a direction we’ll all be moving towards over the coming years.

But like anything, the incorporation of on-line, or “virtual” classes into the curriculum can be done well or it can be done poorly.  From the little I know about it, it seems as if Middleton is doing a good job of utilizing virtual class options to enhance the learning experiences of its students.  We in Madison could probably take a lesson from our friends in Middleton in this regard.  I expect that Middleton’s and other district’s approaches to the better utilization of on-line classes will be a subject of study of the working group Dan Nerad is putting together to develop innovative and alternative approaches and programs for Madison’s schools.

I am not as impressed with what I understand about K12, Inc.’s operations through the McFarland School District.  K12, Inc. may have developed wonderful on-line classes.  That’s not the focus of my concerns.  What bothers me is that K12 apparently spends about $3200 for every student that enrolls in its virtual schools.  We (i.e., the Madison Metropolitan School District), however, have to send to McFarland about $6,700 for every MMSD student who enrolls in the virtual school.  According to the Cap Times article, the McFarland School District is just sort of the middleman in the transaction.  The district only gets to keep somewhere between $300 and $350 of the $6,700 per student other school districts are sending their way.  It seems safe to assume that the remainder ends up in the coffers of K12, Inc.

To my mind, the problem here resides in the provisions of state law that require this fixed amount of transfer payment, unrelated to the amount of state aid per student the sending school district receives or the additional costs that the receiving district incurs

Why is K12, Inc. able to educate a MMSD student for a fraction of the amount that MMSD spends per student?  The obvious difference is that K12 doesn’t need facilities like classrooms and gyms and cafeterias and music and art rooms and libraries and swimming pools and the rest.  K12 also doesn’t need to worry about school psychologists, and social workers, and librarians, and nurses, and custodians, and coaches, and band directors, and the many other non-classroom-teacher professionals who contribute to the education that school districts traditionally provide.

But what I consider particularly worrisome is that K12 appears to hire only part-time teachers to supervise their distant students, pays them $12 per hour to start, and apparently provides no benefits.

There seems to be a general agreement that teacher quality is the single most important school-related variable in predicting student achievement.  There also seems to be widespread agreement that it would be a good thing if we could attract more high-performing college graduates into the teaching profession.

It is a puzzle to me that many of the same people who subscribe to the notion that we need better and more highly qualified teachers in our schools also endorse the “innovation” of corporations like K12, Inc., whose business model appears to be based on an approach that significantly diminishes the professionalism of the teachers it employees.  It certainly does not seem that a career opportunity as a $12-dollar-an-hour virtual school teacher for a corporation like K12, Inc. would appeal to the kinds of high-achieving college graduates from diverse backgrounds that we’d like to draw into the teaching profession.

There’s also the fact that this sort of sub-contracting out to K12, Inc. of the provision of all the education that enrollees in the McFarland virtual school are provided amounts to an under-the-radar but de facto privatization of our public schools.

I tend to think that’s not a positive development, though I’m open to persuasion on the issue.  But let’s bring out into the open and discuss the topics of school privatization and its potential impact on the teaching profession, rather than uncritically welcoming with open arms any development that can be labeled “innovation,” along with all the baggage that might come with it

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