It’s not the stuff of futurist fantasy any more, with tens of thousands of students across the nation getting their K-12 education online -- in individual classes or virtual schools.
But New Jersey has been slow in catching the virtual wave, often relying on individual districts to develop their own programs or network with others. The state is one of 17 states with no statewide virtual school.
So when the Legislature’s Joint Committee on the Public Schools held a hearing this week to discuss online learning, the experts and practitioners called in were almost all from outside the state, including several from across the border in Pennsylvania.
“That’s our reality, we’re behind” said Assemblywoman Mila Jasey (D-Essex), co-chair of the panel’s subcommittee on school choice. “We have to not be afraid to start doing things differently.”
That reality may soon change, or at least see new debate over how effective such virtual schools are and what place they should have in New Jersey.
Two applications are now before the state Department of Education to open virtual charter schools that would provide classes predominantly online, one for dropouts in some of New Jersey’s largest cities and the other a K-12 school in Newark.
The former comes out of the Monmouth-Ocean Educational Services Commission. The commission has probably the state’s most extensive online network through its New Jersey Virtual School programs, which mostly focus on remediation and credit recovery.
“I know there is a lot of discussion of preventing the dropouts in the first place,” said Timothy Nogueira, the commission’s superintendent. “But they’re already out there. And we know how to do this. We’ve been doing it for seven years, helping thousands of students.”
In conjunction with former Education Commissioner William Librera and his Rutgers Institute for Improving Student Achievement, the new charter school would start with about 150 students who have dropped out in Camden, Paterson, Perth Amboy and Neptune, providing them a chance and support to gain their degrees.
Librera said it was an attempt to provide different schemes for students for whom the first option for education didn’t work. The students would be provided guidance and community support, taking classes both from their homes and from centers across the state located in community colleges.
“It would be hybrid, not all virtual,” Librera said. “That wouldn’t work for those who need the structure.”
The Newark proposal -- the New Jersey Virtual Academy Charter School -- is making its second bid for state approval, submitted by a group led by Michael Pallante, the former principal of the Robert Treat Academy Charter School.
It would serve up to 800 students of all ages, although the expectation is for more older students who also have not fared as well in traditional high schools.
“They're aimed more at the middle or upper grades,” Pallante said. “There is more a need for that, as they’ve faced difficulties in those grades, a lot of negativism. This would be a safer way and place for them to work their way to their degrees.”
But seeing his application rejected once earlier this year, Pallante acknowledged it has been a challenge trying to fit the proposal into regulations that neither prohibit nor accommodate cyberschools. For example, the current law includes provisions for where a schools would be located and what students would enroll, issues that are less relevant online.
“It doesn’t fall into the typical box,” Pallante said. “But I saw we need to look at it with an open mind and see how we can use existing law to make it work.”
Still, one reason for the slow growth of cyberprograms in New Jersey has been continued debate about their effectiveness, experts said, as well as the accountability of programs relying on staffing and students not on site.
The New Jersey Education Association (NJEA), the teachers union, has been chief critic and testified separately this fall to a bill that would further open the way for approval of virtual schools. A big issue is the lack of assurances that teachers are certified and students are even from New Jersey. A NJEA spokesman called it “nothing more than government-sponsored home schooling.”
“These are public dollars going to schools with students on the other end of the line who you can’t always be sure are even New Jersey residents,” said Steve Wollmer, NJEA’s communications director.
Librera said many of the concerns about virtual schools are worth discussing. He said his proposal, like the Monmouth-Ocean programs now in place, would require certified teachers and aligned curricula, just as with traditional schools.
“It’s not an either-or,” he said. ‘We think there is a way to do both.”
At the Joint Committee’s hearing on Tuesday, former West Virginia Governor Robert Wise said New Jersey should recognize the value of online learning and how it can help solve mounting pressures on schools in terms of dollars and access.
“There’s a trepidation. We have a very traditional model,” said Wise, who now co-chairs the Digital Learning Council, a national group dedicated to expanding online schooling. “But one message to get out there, this is not a threat to teachers. This is about giving teachers the tools they need.”