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Virtual Education: The Real Issues

The New York Times’ Sam Dillon wrote the most recent version of a story we see roughly every six months, which I’ll call the “virtual education wars.” It’s an easy write – describe the size of the market, quote someone who likes it – a parent, provider, or policy wonk; quote someone who is opposed – an official from a district harmed economically or a teachers union representative; find a scandal; see what's going on in the courts and legislatures. There’s nothing wrong with this, the public needs to be reminded it’s an issue, but I never get the idea that these articles advance the discussion, they simply reify the insiders' debate.

The economic and political stakes for certain actors are made very clear in this reporting. Many districts are losing economically to on-line providers. The online providers want to protect their revenue streams. Teachers unions haven’t organized online providers’ teaching staffs, and probably can’t – that threatens union jobs and power. Parents who find online schools useful want to keep the option alive. Politicians and policy wonks align with these interests.

Bad actors and incompetents exist in every corner of public education – the reporter writing on teachers unions or school districts has access to no shortage of scandals. So what? They rarely help to focus the reader on the important issues of public policy – those that speak to the interests of the taxpayer, student and general public, rather than their instrumentalities – teachers union, districts and the private sector.

When it comes to virtual education, what are those issues? Again, nothing complicated, even if they are ignored:

1. What is the evidence on the value-added to student performance? Do these programs contribute to higher scores on state assessments? For particular kinds of students? Under particular circumstances? Do they offer students access to programs or curriculum districts cannot or do not provide? Do they reduce student dropout rates? Only if there is evidence that they do any of this should we move on to other topics.

2. Are providers being fairly compensated? It’s obvious that virtual schools and their “bricks and mortar” counterparts have different cost structures. Virtual schools don’t transport kids or heat buildings; bricks and mortar schools don’t have substantial internet-based infrastructures or huge investments in intellectual property. Other things being equal, fees to private firms for public education should bear some relation to costs, and those fees should not exceed what is paid to districts. It is almost certainly the case that virtual providers should be paid something less than the state per pupil payment provided to districts for bricks and mortar students. However, this does not mean that the excess should go to school districts; taxpayers have interests too.

3. What kind of regulation is required to police the virtual industry? There will always be bad actors. Our interests are student output rather than controlling inputs. What’s the minimum regulation required to keep most undesirable online providers out of the market?

4. How to provide those parts of a child’s education that cannot be met online? In the virtual age kids still play sports on real fields with real people. They want to join real bands. They want to participate in chess, debate and math teams. They want to publish local newspapers and put on plays. Beyond that, kids want and need to physically hang out with peers who they choose, not only kids their parents pick out, or who live in the same neighborhood, or operate in similar socio-economic circle. Maybe brick and mortar schools have an argument for some of that per pupil money if they can meet those needs.

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