Cyber School Debate in Michigan

By Lillian Williams

The State of Michigan is edging closer to plans for more online charter schools in a move endorsed by the Republican-led state Senate.

Bloomberg Businessweek reports that legislation approved by the Michigan Senate would raise the cap on the number of online schools and enrollment. The Senate approved the bill with a 20-18 vote. The measure moves to the Michigan House of Representatives for consideration.

State Senator Patrick Colbeck (R-Canton), sponsor of the bill, maintains that the expansion of “cyber schools” is necessary to  increase educational options for students in grades kindergarten through 12.  His legislation would eliminate the ceiling on both the number of online schools and the number of students who could enroll.  

“Cyber schools are another option we have in reforming our education system in Michigan so that we are meeting the varied needs of all of our students,” Colbeck said in a statement after the legislative vote. “These schools provide a free, public education to students that can be tailored to address each child’s strengths and weaknesses while providing increased one-on-one communication with a teacher.”

Colbeck argues that online schools would be “held to the same certification standards, curriculum requirements and testing requirements as other public schools in Michigan.”

“There are mechanisms in place to measure the results of a student’s cyber school education,” Colbeck asserts. “Currently, students in Michigan’s two cyber schools are performing as well as or better than the statewide average for the MEAP test.”

Sen. Phil Pavlov (R-St. Clair Township), chairman of the Michigan Senate’s Education Committee, echoed Colbeck’s remarks, adding: “These bills are about empowering parents with the education choices and opportunities that work best for their children and giving schools the flexibility they need to innovate and excel.”

But not so fast.  A policy brief released earlier this week argues that virtual schools in the United States need more oversight, and that studies so far have been inadequate.  This policy brief was issued by the National Education Policy Center (NEPC), based in Boulder, Colorado.

The NEPC report points out that “cyber schools,” which exist in at least 27 states, “have intrigued politicians, particularly those seeking to lower expenditures for K-12 education.”  However, the report notes that experienced educators are “worried that something important may be lost when live teachers and classroom communities are replaced by laptops.”

“Little or no research is yet available on the outcomes of such full-time virtual schooling,” according to the NEPC policy brief.  Partial, or blended, forms of online education have been studied “fairly extensively,” the report argues, but such research “tells us little about scaling up from isolated courses to full-time virtual schooling.” 

The NEPC policy brief calls for state legislatures to ask critical questions about funding, quality, and cost of online education programs.

What do you think about the Michigan proposal to substantially increase the number of virtual schools? Do you think such expansion should wait for research to establish best policies and practices for virtual schools? Or, do you think that more students urgently need this online school option?


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