Virtual insanity

The Oregonian reports that its state board of education last week gave the green light to "virtual" charter schools in the state, but put them on a "short cord." Under the "compromise," such schools will be limited to 100 students per grade, all of whom must ask their home school districts for permission to go virtual. The enrollment cap is a major disappointment. Such a "slow growth" policy might make sense in states without any virtual school experience; getting a foot in the door is a decent political strategy, and creates an opportunity for the schools to prove themselves, demonstrate parental demand via long waiting lists, and build momentum for more flexible state policies. But Oregon is no stranger to virtual education; it is already home to the 1,800 student Connections Academy, which by all accounts is doing well. Another 900-student school, the Oregon Virtual Academy, operated by K12*, was slated to open in the fall. It's hard to see this cap as anything but a boon to the traditional public school system--and its unions--and a slap in the face to parents looking for a school that fits their child's needs.

But even worse is the veto power given to local school districts that don't want their students attending these schools. In an age when the value of "public school choice" is widely agreed upon, I can't think of any other "inter-district" plan where the "sending" district can block children at the schoolhouse door. Of course this is about money; those districts don't raise a fuss when students transfer to private schools or home schools because their tax revenue stays within district coffers. The difference is that some local dollars travel with the kids to their new virtual schools. It's no surprise that the districts want to avoid this fiscal pinch, but the public should cheer, for it might lead the regular public schools to make some virtual offerings of their own.

To be sure, virtual schools, like all public schools, should face quality control mechanisms, especially requirements that they get results in terms of raising student achievement. And it's fair to debate whether virtual schools need the same amount of funding as regular brick-and-mortar ones. Because of their economies of scale, perhaps their per-pupil allotments should fall as their enrollments rise. But at a time when all states are worried about preparing students for the "innovation economy," how sad it is that Oregon would put the kibosh on one of the most promising innovations in education today.

* I once worked for K12, though, regrettably, I don't have any financial stake in the company.

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