News: CJ Exclusives

Do Online Charters Threaten Home Schools?

Some see government virtual charters as way to gain more control

The school-choice movement broadly supports charter schools as a better alternative to the traditional public school system, but many home educators are concerned that online, or “virtual,” charter schools are being used to regain control over what home-school students are taught and perhaps lure them back into the public education system.

Virtual charter schools are particularly attractive to home-schoolers because they provide government funds for school materials and allow parents to supervise the learning process at home. In exchange, parents must abide by a government-imposed schedule and restrictions on what curriculum can be taught.

According to Michael Smith, president of the Homeschool Legal Defense Association, an organization dedicated to defending the legal rights of home- school families, many virtual charter school programs are being marketed to home-schoolers.

“There is definitely advertising directed toward the home-school community,” he said. “Look what we have for you — we can pay for your books, extra curricular activities, a computer, and all you have to do is sign up.”

A Growing Movement

Research gathered by The Center for Education Reform shows that virtual charters have grown over the last few years, jumping from 89 schools nationally in 2002 to 178 schools in 2006. Virtual schools exist in 19 states and serve more than 93,000 students. More states, including South Carolina, are changing their charter school laws to allow virtual schools.

North Carolina’s charter school law does not specifically authorize virtual charter schools, according to Alison Consoletti, director of research for CER. Local school officials and state policymakers have appeared reluctant to authorize both virtual and traditional brick-and-mortar charter schools. Despite repeated attempts over previous legislative sessions to increase the number of charters allowed under state law, the General Assembly has kept the cap at 100 schools.

According to an article in the spring 2005 edition of The North Carolina Journal of Law and Technology, some North Carolina school districts have turned down applications for virtual charters in the past. For example, Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools rejected an attempt to open a virtual charter known as New Connections Academy in 2002, citing “unanswered questions” about the effectiveness of virtual charters.

Like traditional charter schools, virtual charters have faced opposition from the public school establishment. Public school districts are generally not supportive of virtual charters, Consoletti said.

“School districts don’t think it’s fair that virtual schools receive the same amount of money per pupil because they do not have buildings and therefore don’t have the same maintenance [costs] as a traditional school,” said Consoletti, pointing to a years-long court battle in Pennsylvania over the 11 virtual charters in the state as evidence of public school opposition.

Recently, a Wisconsin judge ruled against a teacher’s union that had filed a lawsuit against the Wisconsin Virtual Academy, a K-8 virtual charter. The union charged that WVA violated state law by having parents rather than public school instructors educate students, according to the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel. The state Department of Public Instruction filed briefs in the case supporting the union’s position.

Home-schoolers concerned

In contrast to why the public school establishment opposes virtual charters, many home-school parents are concerned over the potential for these schools to infringe on educational freedom and flexibility.

“A private home education is really a liberty issue, and it’s very tough to see how a government operated home school could be in the best interests of liberty for home education,” Smith said.

Because virtual charters are still under the curriculum and testing requirements of traditional public schools, home-school parents lose the right to choose faith-based materials. “If [parents] want credit for this, if they want a diploma later or a transcript or anything like that, they have to teach over the curriculum that is approved,” Smith said. “That doesn’t prevent them, outside the time they’re getting credit, to augment [teaching materials] with Christian curriculum, but if they want to be in compliance with the program, they have to use whatever the charter school provides by way of curriculum.”

One example of a virtual charter school that has faced opposition from home educators is the Interior Distance Education of Alaska, a statewide program created in 1997 that claims to be specifically tailored to the needs of home-school families. The program provides a per-student allotment of up to $2,000 annually for expenses such as textbooks, school supplies, and field trips.

A similar program, the Idaho Distance Education Academy, explicitly prohibits curriculum funds from being used to purchase “faith-based or doctrinal materials.” Of concern to home-schoolers who value flexibility, the program establishes a mandatory attendance policy, with middle- and high-school students required to participate in “school” for a minimum of 990 hours per year. In addition, parents are required to electrically login and report any student absences.

The Idaho Coalition of Home Educators has raised concerns about the I-DEA program, pointing out that public school districts have an incentive to recruit students since they receive government funds for each student enrolled in the online classes. School districts can use the extra dollars to supplement funds from traditionally enrolled public school students, according to ICHE. The home- school organization also claims that I-DEA allows public schools to receive credit for the achievements of home-schoolers.

Smith said that money is “probably the primary reason” that virtual charters are targeting home-schoolers. “The difference between what it actually costs them to administer the program and what they get from the state goes directly to [the virtual charter],” Smith said. He said that, in some cases, public schools might be trying to influence what children are taught by using virtual charters as a kind Trojan horse.

“There have been efforts to take the regulation of those who are under the virtual charter schools who are teaching their children at home and apply it to all of the home schoolers,” Smith said. “It looks like a good way to regulate home schooling, and that is the problem with these programs long term. They may look good now, but I have no doubt that the government, somewhere down the road, will try to tighten up on all of the home-schoolers.”

David N. Bass is a contributing editor of Carolina Journal.