Stay Open to Virtual Charter Schools

As published in The Philadephia Inquirer, August 21, 2001

Pennsylvania’s growing virtual charter school movement is facing a fierce backlash.

Superintendents from around the state are concerned about the competition. School boards are predicting budgetary shortfalls. Teachers’ unions and school board associations are anxious about the impact of these new schools. Emotions are running high, and allegations are rampant. We need to keep in mind the most important question of all: How can we provide all of Pennsylvania’s students with the excellent education they deserve?

Last year, Pennsylvania’s two virtual charter schools served about 700 students across the commonwealth. This year, several more virtual schools have been granted charters and are scheduled to open.

In separate lawsuits, the Pennsylvania School Board Association (PSBA) argues that virtual charter schools, as well as brick-and-mortar charter schools, are both unfair and unconstitutional. PSBA contends that virtual charter schools should be eliminated. Supporters of these schools have a different view. They contend that parents who pay their local taxes should be offered the best possible public-school program for their children. Parents, not school boards, should be empowered with making educational choices for their children.

I understand the school districts’ worries. Virtual schools overturn the old geographic boundaries of school districts. And new technologies raise important new questions and complex issues – all of which the state legislature should address this fall. It would, however, be a grave mistake to discard virtual charter schools altogether or regulate them out of existence. Their many benefits are just now beginning to emerge.

Lessons learned in virtual charter schools will be available for all to see: about the value of self-paced and individualized instruction, multimedia presentation of instructional material, the flexibility of learning anytime and anywhere, and the ability to track academic progress and see exactly when (and in what subject) a child needs help. Charter schools are intended to be models of innovation. They are the research-and-development arm of public education. Clearly there is much to learn about the ways technology can bolster student achievement.

Of course, not all virtual schools will be effective. Simply adding a silicon chip to an educational program will not make it work better. As with any school reform, proper implementation is necessary, and support from both parents and teachers will always be the most important ingredient. But the charter school concept – allowing for flexibility and innovation while holding schools strictly accountable for their results – is as relevant to virtual schools as it is to traditional schools.

At the Pennsylvania Virtual Charter School, students and parents will work together through challenging materials – on and away from computers. In the elementary years, most schoolwork is conducted away from the computer, with books, math manipulatives, science equipment, art supplies, and more. When the school opens in September, students will learn to read using time-tested and phonics-based methods. The Internet will help facilitate these activities, but children will learn just as they have for generations – under the guidance of caring adults. Though this model will not appeal to all families, it will work well for many. We look forward to the day when our results, including our test scores, are scrutinized.

Amid all the debate, we must remember to focus on schoolchildren and their education. American children desperately need access to a compelling and academically rich education to prepare for tomorrow’s world. Schools that can meet the challenge – virtual, charter, or otherwise – should be celebrated and supported. In this realm, Pennsylvania has an opportunity to lead the nation.

William J. Bennett is a former U.S. secretary of education and chairman of K12, an Internet-based elementary and secondary education program. He will be speaking about the Pennsylvania Virtual Charter School (which uses K12 in its curriculum) this evening at the Philadelphia Marriott in Center City.