If you are a parent who believes in teaching your children anything – you better have a license – or so it would seem in light of a decision by the District 2 Court of Appeals in Wisconsin this week. Articles in the Minneapolis-St. Paul Star Tribune and The Capital Times in Madison reported that the Court of Appeals overturned a decision from 2006 that threw out a suit brought against the Northern Ozaukee School District which operates the Wisconsin Virtual Academy. The suit had been brought against the school district by the Wisconsin Education Association Council (the states largest teachers union) in 2004.
While home schooling and online educational environments have become more common place and less controversial over the past two decades, the judges comments on the issue show a lack of understanding about the process of online education and a glaring disregard for parental control over a child’s education. The virtual school operates as a sort of hybrid combining aspects of traditional home schooling with those of a traditional classroom education while existing in a virtual space. The judge’s justifications for his decision are simply unsupportable. Since the parents are, in the judge’s estimation, serving as teachers
in the public school they must be licensed, if they are not, then the school is violating statutes that require all public school teachers to be licensed. “The problem is not that the unlicensed WIVA parents teach their children, but that they ‘teach in a public school,'” said Judge Richard Brown. He fails to delineate between an online educational environment and those of a traditional setting. The statutes he adheres to were designed before virtual learning spaces existed and can not be used to define the learning spaces of a new time.
Could the real reason for the suit by the teachers union be hiding in dollars and not common sense? Judge Brown indicated that state funds must stop being provided to the school because, the majority of its students live outside of the district where the school is located – which also violates a state statute according to the judge. Does a virtual school have a “location” or is it by it’s very nature not situated in a specific district? The state should fund education in its many forms. Wisconsin has an extensive higher education system (which includes a large technical college component) that it funds extensively and to some degree rather successfully. Why does this area of education seem to be problematic?
An attorney for students represented in the case makes the point that, “If in fact children enrolled from outside the district are enrolled illegally, that will affect most, if not all, of the virtual schools in Wisconsin.” So it would appear that if a district does not offer a virtual school option it can essentially force students living in the district to attend only the districts physical schools. This does not seem to be conducive to the growth of virtual learning endeavors. Judge Brown’s decision seems to indicate that,
- Schools can only exist in the district where a student lives
- Courses can only be taught by state sanctioned teachers
- Oversight by certified district teachers isn’t a significant factor
- The state can not fund innovative educational projects that meet the needs of Wisconsin’s constituents
- Education professionals can not work in concert with parents in educating children
With a growing base of literature over the past twenty years that details the diversity of learning styles that exist in the nations student population it would seem obvious that the public education sector needs to find ways to meet these needs. Rose Fernandez, president of the Wisconsin Coalition of Virtual School Families, makes it rather clear that the power and possibility of virtual school environments is real, “Many [families] have kids who are thriving for the first time.” The Northern Ozaukee School District seems to have made great strides in the direction of broadening the educational offerings made with the states money – thereby reaching more potential students.
The case, which will be appealed to the state’s Supreme Court, should force state legislators and educational administrators to rewrite or better yet – conceptualize anew – what it means to educate the state’s student population. Once they have done so, they can then put into place realistic supports for a system designed to educate students rather than perpetuate tradition.