Virtually Back to School (Collin Hitt)
If you’ve never heard of a ‘virtual school,’ you’re not alone. Most people are unfamiliar with the term. Even so, virtual schools, cyber schools, e-schools – call them what you will – are quietly revolutionizing American education.
Next week, the Chicago Virtual Charter School will open its ‘doors.’ It will be the state’s first ‘virtual school’ for elementary school students, and the state’s first virtual charter school. That’s a shame. Illinois should have had a virtual elementary school by now. It should have had dozens of them.
Opportunities to earn a quality education have become increasingly rare for many students in Illinois. That Chicago (a city desperate to improve its struggling public school system) has embraced virtual education is encouraging. That downstate and rural school districts have not taken similar strides is an embarrassment.
Through virtual classrooms, technology now allows students access not only to information, but to the best teachers in the country. As of 2003, over 328,000 public school students across the country were enrolled in distance education courses. That number can reasonably be expected to reach a half-million, very soon. Nationwide, there are nearly two-hundred unique virtual schools – public, private, and charter. Illinois has…one.
When the new charter school opens next week, that number will double. Until now, he Illinois Virtual High School has stood as the state’s lone virtual school. Created by the State Board of Education in 2000, the ‘high school’ (as opposed to the charter school) is authorized neither to give course credit, nor to confer degrees. Its offerings serve only to supplement the offerings currently available to high school students.
The school does commendable work, given its limited budget and narrow mandate. However, the options available to students through the Illinois Virtual High School pale in comparison to those available to students in states such as Florida, Ohio, and Arkansas. In those states, public-private partnerships between firms such as K12, Inc. and Connections Academy are re-forming public education, for the better.
Yet, special interests oppose the idea. Randall Greenway and Greg Vanourek, experts in virtual education, have written that while “Urban parents may want to address safety or overcrowding concerns, while rural parents may seek advanced or specialized academic offerings not available locally…the politics of education also still hold. While virtual schools are not creatures of the Left or Right, they do run into the same roadblocks from special interest groups that other innovations encounter, usually centering on power and money.”
The Chicago Teachers Union has thrown its weight against the Chicago Virtual Charter School, which narrowly won approval by the State Board of Education last week. Attempts to make similar opportunities available to downstate parents would inevitably encounter similar resistance. Regardless, children downstate cannot wait for public education to reach a crisis, as in Chicago – whereupon the public school system has had no choice but to attempt anything that might improve the lot of its squalid public schools.
A virtual classroom is not the ideal setting for every student. However, it is for children in the worst educational circumstances – whether they be urban or rural – for whom modern technology can make the biggest difference. For many of those students, a virtual classroom is a genuine improvement over the options presently available in a public school setting.
A state government genuinely dedicated to public education must guarantee that every public school student have access to the highest-quality education available, wherever it can be found, using whatever means necessary. Illinois could create a statewide virtual school, much like the Florida Virtual Academy, through simple public act. Local virtual schools, such as the dozens found across Ohio, could be had through a simple change to the state’s charter school laws.
Our lawmakers must open their minds to innovations that can provide to thousands of Illinois children the quality education they have long been due. Their willingness to do so will be the measure of their dedication to our state’s future.
Collin Hitt is Director of Education Policy and Reform at the Springfield-based Illinois Policy Institute. He can be reached at collin at illinoispolicyinstitute period org.