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Friday, December 21, 2007

Should NACOL Get Involved?

Okay, we're talking about the Wisconsin case again. I noticed that the President and Vice-President of the North American Council for Online Learning (NACOL) posted this to one of their forms and a Yahoo! News Group earlier today.
NACOL is very concerned about the impact that the recent Wisconsin Court of Appeals decision may have on online learning in Wisconsin. To that end, NACOL is considering submitting an amicus (“friend of the court”) brief on behalf of all those interested in quality online learning in WI urging the State Supreme Court to take the case on appeal. The goal is to provide a way for Wisconsin’s diverse virtual education community to speak with one voice about the importance of online learning opportunities for Wisconsin students, without necessarily arguing the specific details of the case. NACOL sees this as an opportunity for NACOL and its Wisconsin members to play an important and inclusive leadership role on these issues. For more information, see http://groups.yahoo.com/group/Wisconsin_Online_Learning_Community/
Okay, now I've already posted on this topic once - see Problems Are Brewing in Wisconsin - and I have to be honest and say that I'm not sure that NACOL should be getting involved in this case at this level.

As I think that you will all know, I am a supporter of virtual school - a proponent if you will. However, I think that there is a legitimate case here and I'm not sure it does NACOL any good to go off and support the Wisconsin Virtual Academy (WIVA) simply because they are a cyber charter school - and to be honest I begin to question what exactly NACOL is standing for by taking this action.

If you look at the actual Court of Appeals decision you'll see that the case against WIVA is quite convincing. According to the appeal court decision, there were three main issues: where is the school located, what does it mean to attend a virtual school, and what teaching role can parents play in virtual schooling.

Dealing with the first issue, whether the district created a charter school that operates outside of the boundaries of the district itself. The WIVA argued that the school was located in the district because its administration and secretarial support were located in the district. The Wisconsin Education Association Council (WEAC) argued that most of the teachers hired by the virtual charter school and the majority of the students were located outside of the district, thereby the school was located outside of the district. The appeals court decided that the school existed both in the district and partly outside of the district based upon current state statutes.

On the second issue, what it meant to attend a school. The WEAC argued that to attend meant to physically go to a school, while the WIVA believed that to attend in a virtual sense meant where a student was enrolled. The court took the opinion that if the school was located, at least partially, outside of the district that this point was unnecessary as some student attended a school outside of the district (i.e., those who lived outside of the district), while others attended a school inside of the district (i.e., those who lived inside of the district).

It is worth noting on these two points that in their decision the court indicated that simple changes in the statutes by the legislature to clarify how these provisions - which were clearly intended for a brick and mortar world - would work when it comes to virtual schools. In several places the court laments about the lack of action by the legislature in dealing with this new form of schooling.

On the final issue, this appears to be where the case fell apart for the WIVA the most. In fact, the court reserved three pages for the first two questions, but took approximately the same amount of space to discuss this third issue - whether or not parent in the WIVA constituted teachers. Let me just quote from the decision...
The word “teach” is undefined in Wis. Stat. § 118.19, but DPI has promulgated a definition at Wis. Admin. Code § PI 34.01(59) (June 2004): “Teaching” means improving pupil learning by planning instruction, diagnosing learning needs, prescribing content delivery through classroom activities, assessing student learning, reporting outcomes to administrators and parents and evaluating the effects of instruction.

WIVA parents’ role found in a WIVA slide show: “fulfillment of attendance requirements, continuous progress with the K-12 curriculum, participation in regular teacher conference calls, monthly submission of student’s work samples, and participation in State testing programs.”

[WEAC argues a] WIVA parent performs activities that are undeniably teaching: leading the student through a lesson plan, answering questions and assessing student progress.

The District has nowhere disputed that a parent works one-on-one with a pupil, presenting the lesson, answering questions, and assessing progress. Instead, they simply highlight other parental tasks.

the District proposes that even if WIVA parents engage in “teaching,” the licensure statute applies only to “professional teachers”—the employees of a public school. The argument is essentially that a “teacher” is generally understood to be a professional employed to teach and, thus, the statute does not regulate WIVA’s parents, even if they serve the same role as teachers, because they are not paid.

We wish to emphasize that the issue in this case is not simply what the parents do, but what the school requires them to do in order for the school to function. We underscore that no one is suggesting that a parent assisting his or her child to whatever extent the parent finds necessary is “illegal.” The question is not whether and how a parent may assist his or her child with schoolwork; rather, it is whether the District can establish a public school, using public funds, that relies upon unlicensed individuals as the primary teachers of the pupils. The problem is not that the unlicensed WIVA parents teach their children, but that they “teach in a public school.”

we are convinced beyond doubt that the activities of the WIVA parents constitute “teaching in a public school.”
These quotes lay out the crux of the case from my own personal standpoint. I agree with the court in that the legislature should take steps to amend what it means for a school to operate and what it means for a student to attend to account for the advent of online learning.

However, on this third point I don't believe that the statute should simply be updated to accommodate the virtual school movement. If, as the court found, a school requires that parents act as teachers it should not receive the same funding as a brick and mortar school where the parents are free to help a child with their schoolwork but not required because that is the job of the teachers employed by the school.

In the same way that a parent who choses to home school their child does not receive public education funding to support their own instruction, neither should this virtual school receive the same public funding as a brick and mortar school when they require parents to teach. As the court stated: "
The question is not whether and how a parent may assist his or her child with schoolwork; rather, it is whether the District can establish a public school, using public funds, that relies upon unlicensed individuals as the primary teachers of the pupils."

Having said that, I would encourage the legislature to amend the funding formula to reflect the reality of this form of virtual schooling. By this I mean add a provision so that virtual schools where parents are required to perform the role of teachers receive a smaller per student allocation because the licensed teachers of the school are only doing a percentage of the work that would be done by a brick and mortar (or even traditional virtual school model that has developed in most states).

And this is where NACOL should invest its energies in my opinion, lobby the legislature to make these changes and not standing up for a virtual school simply because it is a virtual school.

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2 Comments:

Blogger Doc said...

The same type of problem exists in New York State. The initial legislation permitting charter schools mandates something to the effect that students must meet physically or some such verbiage. The upshot is that the legislation effectively prohibits online charter schools.

5:03 PM  
Blogger MKB said...

Not sure if I see that as an upshot. While I lean towards not being in favor of charter schools in general, and I personally see K12, Inc. as a poor model of virtual schooling, I think we should be moving towards more progressive legislation that recognizes both virtual schools and cyber schools for what they are and establish regulations for each that make sense instead of trying to fit them into a model of brick and mortar education.

MKB

5:19 PM  

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