Virtual Charter Schools Face Opposition From Unlikely Source

July 7, 2008 - 7:20 PM

(Correction: Fixes spelling of Washburne)

(CNSNews.com) - "Virtual public education," a concept that borrows elements of home schooling, taxpayer-funded charter schools and the Internet, is gaining momentum with the introduction of new online academies in California, Ohio and Idaho.

K12 Inc., the brainchild of former U.S. Education Secretary William Bennett, is not the first organization to offer Internet-based education, but with Bennett's backing, is the most prominent. K12 already has virtual academies set up in Pennsylvania and Colorado, providing more than a thousand students with what Bennett calls a "world-class education" in the privacy of their own homes.

Opposition to K12 is being mounted, predictably by the National Education Association, but also by an unlikely source, home school advocates.

Funding the 'Virtual Academies'

Taxpayers pay for the computers, printers, Internet access, books and other tools used by the students at the K12 virtual academies.

The National Education Association (NEA), which opposes home schooling in general and supports charter schools "with certain provisions," calls Bennett's K12 taxpayer "facilitated home schooling."

"We are raising the bar in terms of accountability in public education every day and now to simply suggest that we're going to spend public funds for a child to be taught at the kitchen table by someone that is not a qualified educator is ... sort of counter to everything else we're saying about what we want in public education," said Barbara Stein, senior policy analyst for the NEA.

Bennett is conducting open houses throughout the summer at virtual academies in California, Ohio and Idaho, where, beginning in September, lessons will be taught over the Internet, combining "traditional materials with innovative technology," according to Bennett.

The McLean, Va.-based K12 Inc. currently provides a curriculum only for kids in kindergarten through the fifth grade. The program hopes to eventually set up academies in all 50 states, and for students through the 12th grade.

K12 describes a charter school as "an independent public school of choice, freed from rules but accountable for results." Although charter schools vary in approach from state to state because of government regulations, K12 identifies four "pillars" - freedom, innovation, choice and accountability - as the general basis for charter schools.

Although the curriculum is home-based, K12's founder and CEO Ron Packard told CNSNews.com that its mandated rigorous curriculum, enforced accountability through state tests, and access to state-certified teachers makes it "dramatically different" than the home school approach.

Attack From Home Schoolers

K12 finds itself under attack not only from the teachers' union but also from home school advocacy groups.

Tom Washburne is an attorney at the Home School Legal Defense Association (HSLDA), as well as director of the National Center for Home Education, the HSLDA's federal policy and lobbying arm. Washburne said the HSLDA is reluctant to mix home schooling with public education.

"We've made great grounds in the last couple of decades on home school freedom and we don't want to see us taking a step back," Washburne told CNSNews.com.

The virtual charter schools' offer of a free education could tempt home schoolers to trade in the private freedom they currently enjoy, Washburne said, placing them "back under the public school umbrella."

Washburne said this would undermine the "political presence that you need to fight back the regulations on home education." Even though virtual charter schools might feel like home schooling, their affiliation with the states in which they operate is an invitation for government intrusion, he said.

Jeff Kwitowski, Bennett's press secretary, dismissed that argument, insisting that government is only intruding on the K12 concept by requiring state funding and tests to measure student performance. Bennett is "not going to let any state politics or any education gurus come in and try to alter things and change things," Kwitowski said.

Packard said he was "shocked" by the opposition being mounted by home school advocates. "It's really amazing to me that a group that has fought so hard for [its] right to home school would oppose someone else's parents who are fighting for their right to be doing at home a great public school education," Packard told CNSNews.com.

"The same level of intolerance that you saw in the education establishment toward home schooling, I think home schooling [groups] are showing toward us," he added.

E-mail a news tip to Jessica Cantelon.

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