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Leftover Political Residue in Virtual Schooling?

Back here at EdWeek headquarters near Washington, and a few days removed from a wonderful Virtual School Symposium in Indianapolis, I'm left cautiously optimistic about the future of virtual schooling but wary of its potential to be politicized as it moves toward the main stream.

On one hand, the symposium hosted by the International Association for K-12 Online Learning, or iNACOL, demonstrated the increasingly diverse nature of fully online or blended learning providers and consumers. And that's not much of a stretch considering the findings in the most recent Keeping Pace, released during the symposium's first day, which identified the expansion of district-run virtual schools of all shapes and sizes as the fastest growing sector within this world.

On the other, my last Friday breakout session and the closing speech demonstrated partisanship and politics are never as far away as some might wish.

First up was a panel billed as how parents could advocate for their children's virtual school rights that turned into a session of mothers sharing stories about how they fought against unions and other left-leaning bodies to preserve the existence of the virtual schools where their children studied.

Then Indiana house speaker Brian Bosma's (R-Marion Co.) address during the closing panel painted Republicans as supporters of educational options for parents, including virtual schools, within the state of Indiana.

"The forces of the traditional model [of education] that doesn't work for everyone are very powerful," said Bosma, apparently alluding to unions while talking about the largely partisan fight within the Indiana legislature to remove virtual school caps as well as institute a school voucher program. Both measures this year passed in a Republican-controlled state legislature essentially along party lines.

"I'm not here to talk about Republicans or Democrats," Bosma continued. "I just don't want you to lose sight of the fact that, for us who are trying to make the changes statutorily, it's become a political battle."

Susan Patrick, iNACOL's president and chief executive officer, followed Bosma's remarks with an assertion that champions of virtual schooling have indeed come from both sides of the aisle. One example is former governors Jeb Bush, the Florida Republican, and Bob Wise, the West Virginia Democrat, who have teamed up to lead the Digital Learning Now initiative. But it remained an awkward moment of polarization in an otherwise inclusive conference.

On a national scale, online learning has become an increasingly non-partisan issue, as the field has evolved from a small base of practitioners mostly from the home schooling community to a much wider cross-section of the population. But Bosma's remarks may indicate that, as online and blended learning options become increasingly mainstream—and more importantly vie for increasingly scarce mainstream dollars—political faultlines could return.

That doesn't always mean support would come from the right, and opposition from the left. Regardless, such conflicts may endanger the vision of those who see online and blended learning as an avenue to comprehensive education reform.

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