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Cyber-Charter Challenge: How Does State Watch Over What It Can't See?

John Mooney | December 10, 2012

Legislature grapples with basic issues concerning online charters, starting with working definitions.

As New Jersey’s Legislature grapples with how, or if, it will step up the state’s oversight of charter schools, a vexing issue remains as to what will happen with schools relying on online instruction.

The Joint Committee on the Public Schools last week held the third of four hearings on online schooling, both strictly virtual and blended models, which use a combination of online and in-class instruction.

The plan is to develop legislation to address the state’s oversight.

But frustrating question remain about where draw the line between schools that rely on online instruction and where it is only a piece of an overall program. And regardless of the model, is cyber-education more appropriate for some ages than for others?

The chairman of the committee and impetus for the hearings, state Assemblywoman Connie Wagner (D-Bergen), said during a break that her understanding of the issues had grown far more nuanced as the hearings have proceeded, including one committee visit to a blended school in Newark.

“The needs of one community are not the same as another," said Wagner, a public school guidance counselor. "If online learning is already here [and] we are not even controlling it, we don’t know what we have.”

Wagner said she wants the state to “slow it up” with any new charter schools. Two virtual charter have been preliminarily approved, but are yet to open. Two others based on a blended model opened this year.

“Let’s get regulations in place,” she said.

Still, after being skeptical about the approach, Wagner said that her mind has changed a little, especially for older students who may have floundered in more traditional settings. One of the two pending schools would serve students who otherwise had dropped out of high school.

“There is a place for online learning, there is a place for it,” Wagner said. “Especially for the students 17-to-19 years old, there is a tremendous need for it. There is definitely a place.”

One of the legislature’s chief critics of online charters, state Assemblyman Patrick Diegnan (D-Middlesex), said this weekend that he, too, has softened his stance concerning some facets of online learning.

The chairman of the Assembly education committee said he is working on a charter school law that would include language for online schools, but he said the specifics as to what the oversight will look like are still being debated.

“It will be in there, it’s the future,” he said of online learning. “But we can’t just give carte blanche authorization without knowing where we’re at.”

Still, Diegnan had initially proposed a 12-month moratorium on the new schools, a bill that passed the Assembly last spring but never was posted in the Senate.

“Politically, it didn’t have a lot of support,” he said of the moratorium bill. “It’s not really something I’m pushing any more.”

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