Wisconsin Virtual Academy Revisited

A week ago I posted about a decision in the District 2 Court of Appeals in Wisconsin that overturned an earlier decision by the courts in favor of the Wisconsin Virtual Academy. Since that post I have done more digging and the decision appears even more problematic as a result.

An article in Technology & Learning begins by laying out some basics statistics in regards to online learning quoting a 2006 report funded in part by the North American Council for Online Learning pointing out the following facts:

  • 38 states have now established state-led online learning programs, policies regulating online learning or both.
  • Enrollments in online courses have increased as much as 50% in some states.
  • 25 states have established state-wide or state-led virtual schools.
  • Michigan now requires high school students to take at least one online course before they graduate.

These simple statistics along with my own personal experience of having been a student in a blended graduate program (60% online – 40% face-to-face), having been an adjunct instructor in the same program, and having been integrally involved in developing a nationwide distance learning program for a parochial school system (grades 5 – 12), makes the Wisconsin courts actions disturbing.

In a press release the Wisconsin Education Association Council, the states NEA affiliate, piously responds to the courts decision, “We are pleased with the court of appeals’ unanimous decision. Now the Wisconsin Legislature must pass legislation that addresses virtual schools and how to make them accountable to students, parents, taxpayers and communities.” This attitude appears to be rather disingenuous in light of an article written by Sandy Cullen in the Wisconsin State Journal in September of 2005. In the article she points out that, “Unlike home-schooled students, those enrolled in the state’s increasing
number of virtual charter schools — currently, there are 11 — must
meet curriculum standards established by the Department of Public
Instruction and take its Wisconsin Knowledge and Concepts exams.”

The union’s response doesn’t mention one of the key reasons the union filed suit the first time in 2004 – the disbursment of state funds to the virtual school operated by the Northern Ozaukee School District. According to a press release from the Wisconsin Coalition of Virtual School Families WEAC has attempted to close two strong public virtual schools in the state. A suit brought against Connections Academy in 2003 was dismissed by the courts.

Rick Esenberg who describes himself as a ” ‘veteran attorney’, currently on the faculty at Marquette University Law School,” addresses the case in his blog Shark and Shepherd.He breaks down the three key points in the case this way (paraphrased):

  • The seeming conflict between the “location” of the school in relationship to the “location” of the students.
  • The level of parental involvement in a child’s education.

There is the additional issue of state funds and the fact that WIVA receives funds from the state for each student under the states open enrollment policy. The policy is designed to allow parents choice when it comes to the education of their children and according the Wisconsin State Journal about 2% of Wisconsin students are taking advantage of this state policy.

In her article, Sara Armstrong explains a bit about the learning environment offered by Connections Academy, the virtual school sued by WEAC in 2003, “Teachers work with their students using a variety of methods including Web-based exchanges, phone conversations, and videoconferencing.” Connections Academy also describes its program this way, “[It] combines strong parental involvement of learning at home, the expertise and accountability of public education, and the flexibility of online classes.”

In Esenberg’s review/analysis of the case he points out that the courts, in defending their decision, cite a paper he authored. However, he makes it clear that while the courts seem to understand what he is saying, they have misapplied the principle. “It seems to me that they ought to have concluded that a parent
assisting his or her child is not a teacher or that the statute
forbids, not all teaching by parents, but the usurpation of the
teacher’s function by the parents. That would require the articulation
of some standard for determining whether there has been usurpation and
the application of it to the particular facts of this case. That didn’t
happen.”

So why is the courts decision a problem? David Williamson Shaffer, Associate Professor at the University of Wisconsin-Madison makes it clear in a podcast (WCER podcast part 2) that “We need to help kids innovate.” Sara Armstrong adds to this thought, “Online learning is here not only to stay but also to drive innovation in both core curriculum and professional development areas.” How does education help students innovate if it is not itself innovative? Wisconsin Virtual Academy and Connections Academy are both pursuing innovative delivery of education, and according to numerous reports doing so with a high level of quality, as evidenced by online student’s performance on state-mandated standardized testing. The courts decisions could jeopardize distance learning in Wisconsin’s public schools. Why is the union seemingly attempting to eliminate online educational options from the state?

According to their press release, WEAC states, “We are eager to work with the Legislature and with other education
groups to develop legislation, as many other states have, that
encourages innovation, protects taxpayers and students, and ensures
that all students attend great schools.” But, as Rick Esenberg points out, “. . . there seems to be little doubt that WEAC’s opposition to it [WIVA] involves more than a little self interest.”

The solution? The Wisconsin state legislature must take charge and work in concert with educational innovators such as David Williamson Shaffer, Sasha Barab, Associate Professor in Learning Sciences at Indiana University, North American Council for Online Learning, and Florida Virtual School among others to develop innovative policy that pushes Wisconsin to the forefront of innovative education, not only online but in brick-and-mortar buildings as well. They need to let WEAC know that it will not be the definitive voice on where education in the state is going. Online education can, and should, work in concert with traditional educational settings as opposed to being treated like the Cinderella of the states educational arena. WEAC’s confrontational stance needs to disappear, the legislature needs to move Wisconsin educational policy into the 21st century . . . and most importantly, students must be given the best opportunity to innovate through learning.

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