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Opinion: Cutting the Clutter About Online Charter Schools

Arguments about virtual charters seem to be more about territory than education.

There’s a ruckus at the New Jersey Department of Education.

New Jersey's charter school legislation is 17 years old, dating back to the dawn of the Internet era. It's showing its age. Commissioner of Education Chris Cerf believes he can use DOE-issued regulations to bring the law up to date. But others think he’s arrogantly bypassing the legislative process.

More offensive to certain lobbying groups, primarily the NJEA and Education Law Center (ELC), the most recent draft of these proposed regulations would remove the requirement that charters serve “contiguous school districts” and implicitly allow the establishment of online charter schools.

In a July 24 letter to Cerf, the lobbyists warn that “the Legislature has not authorized blended online programs that feature a prominent online component nor has the Legislature prescribed a percentage of online instruction that is acceptable in a blended or hybrid program." The complaint also alleges that two approved charter schools in Newark “appear to be online virtual charter schools with the veneer of a traditional bricks and mortar charter schools to mask their true nature.”

Let's cut through all this noise -- including exchanges about the reputation of one of the charter providers (K12) -- and confront the specter of online learning straight on: both fulltime and hybrid (blended).

Nationally, 40 states have passed online learning policies and 30 states and D.C. have created virtual schools. A relatively new group, iNACOL, (International Association for K-12 Online Learning) just released its five Principles for Model Legislation in States.

As goes the country, so goes New Jersey. Explains Dr. Roy Montesano of Ramsey Public Schools, the state's 2012 Superintendent of the Year, “A hybrid model is where education is headed, and we need to stay on top of that as educators. In order to be successful, we need to look beyond our walls for ways to offer what can’t be accomplished in house.”

More and more New Jersey students are going out of house and online. Forty-three public high schools -- 11 percent -- participate in the [[link:http://thevhscollaborative.org/|Virtual High School Global Consortium]. Atlantic City Public Schools’ District Technology Plan intends for its students to “routinely utilize technology as a tool to enhance learning” and “communicate and interact with students and resources beyond the district boundaries.”

At Glen Ridge High School, students can enroll in online courses from Rowan University and receive both high school and college credit, a common model in which state schools link with local and community colleges to efficiently expand offerings. Upper Saddle River School District is experimenting with Florida Virtual School for kids in Algebra I. At the elementary level, most New Jersey public schools subscribe to web-based curricula aligned with our Core Curriculum Content Standards, like Study Island or BrainPOP or PLATO.

Apparently it’s not the benefits or deficits of online learning that’s got New Jersey lobbyists atwitter. This dispute smells more than a little bit like a turf war. After all, if New Jersey (through the DOE or the Legislature) explicitly approves online charter schools, we may eventually need fewer teachers, or at least fewer unionized teachers. Cue NJEA. If the DOE approves online charters that are not circumscribed by “contiguous districts” -- that is, the school can serve students regardless of zip code -- then local power is diminished and the Abbott rulings, which send funding to schools based on zip code, are less relevant. Cue ELC.

Perhaps it’s not so petty. After all, blended learning -- combining online studies with face-to-face instruction -- is here to stay. ELC and NJEA officials know that.

It’s really a matter of degree. What’s the best proportion of online learning to traditional instruction? Which students derive the most from one or the other? What subjects lend themselves to Internet technology and which are best taught through traditional models? How do we nurture students’ social and emotional development in a more virtual environment? Is this sort of educational analysis best performed by the by the state Legislature, DOE, NJEA, local school districts, or representatives from all stakeholders?

These questions bear study. But let’s make this about improving options for New Jersey's schoolchildren, not advancing political agendas.

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