NJ Lawmakers Begin Study of Online Education in Charter Schools

John Mooney | September 10, 2012 | Education
Hearings set to define virtual schools as they evolve and fuel debate in Garden State

Online education in charter schools — in all its different and controversial forms — will get the first of what could be several Statehouse hearings this week, as legislators start to sort out what is growing to be one of the state’s more contentious issues.

The Joint Committee on the Public Schools will host the hearing on Wednesday morning, at 11 a.m., with presentations by three national proponents of online education.

The three are Susan Patrick of the International Association for K-12 Online Learning; Michael Horn of the Education of Innosight Institute; and Jeanne Allen of the Center for Education reform.

The new co-chairman of the joint committee, state Assemblywoman Connie Wagner (D-Bergen), said she wants the first hearing to be devoted to defining the issue, one that has become easily confused with a host of different terms for the different kinds of programs.

She said subsequent hearings would go into the pros and cons of the programs, and then what if any further laws and regulations the legislature should put in place.

A former public high school guidance counselor, Wagner did not hide that she is skeptical herself from the research she has done, but she is coming into the hearings seeking to hear from all sides.

“There are so many different forms of this that we need to set out,” Wagner said yesterday. “Once we have done that, then we can see where government can come into play.”

“This may be the wave of the future, but before we embrace it, we better know what we are talking about,” she said at another point. “There are many, many questions and concerns.”

Relatively new to the field in comparison to other states, New Jersey is getting a crash course in online schooling this year, as the Christie administration approved four charter schools that provide the instruction in different forms.

Two so-called “blended” or “hybrid” charter school programs are underway this fall in Newark where students come to school everyday and take classes from certified teachers, but see as much as half of their instruction online.

The administration has also approved two so-called “virtual” charter schools that are entirely online, with students taking all their classes from home. Their openings have been postponed for a year.

But the topic has been a hot one with the administration’s approvals, with critics contending they are unproven if not harmful to children’s educations. There are few regulations in place for monitoring them as well, with questions to how they would be funded and overseen, they say.

Proponents, including administration officials, contend they provide an alternative for students who do not succeed in more traditional education settings.

Nonetheless, the New Jersey Education Association, the teachers union, has filed a legal challenge against the state’s allowing any of the programs, contending it has no authority under the state’s existing charter law. The law was enacted in 1995, before there was much of an online education field at all.

Wagner said yesterday that her own initial research and conversations with educators and families has found a host of concerns in the approach. She said she traveled this summer in several states where online schooling is more prominent, and even families who had taken part raised concerns.

“I wanted to hear the good and the bad, and usually heard from them that many of the children didn’t follow through and stay in the courses,” she said. “But if a student drops out, what happens to the money in that case?”

Moving ahead with the programs without knowing all these answers is troubling, Wagner said, and she hopes the hearings will at least speed the process in putting in place better oversight.

“I want to slow this up,” Wagner said. “Before we go full throttle, we need to at least ask these questions.”