Home Education Magazine
March-April 2002 - Articles and Columns
Taking Charge - Larry and Susan Kaseman
Let's Not Let Cyber Charter Schools Do In Homeschooling
Charter schools are public schools, funded by tax dollars, that are often run by private individuals and businesses. They were created in the 1990s to encourage the development of innovative public schools that overcome some of the problems of conventional public schools. One type, called cyber or virtual charter schools, is based on students learning by using computers, often in their own homes, rather than attending school in a school building.
Cyber charter schools threaten to undermine conventional local public schools because students who transfer from their local public schools take money, jobs, and prestige away from those schools. Unfortunately, public school districts and state departments of education often do not seem to recognize this threat. Instead of opposing cyber charter schools, many districts and departments are supporting them and working to help them get started. One reason is because they see cyber charter schools as a way to increase the funding they get from the state and to get homeschoolers back into the public school system and increase their control and regulation of homeschools.
Because of the way charter schools, including cyber charter schools, have been set up, some of the tax dollars that have been earmarked for public schools will, in fact, flow through cooperating public school districts or other organizations that have been authorized to grant charters to the people and corporations that run charter schools.
We homeschoolers are being drawn into this because many charter schools, especially cyber charter schools, are calling their schools "homeschools" and aggressively marketing to homeschoolers by offering free curriculums, computers, and support teachers. We homeschoolers know cyber charter schools are NOT homeschools. Their spread threatens to change the definition of homeschooling and do us in both with regulations all charter schools are under because they are public schools and with hoops cyber charter schools have to jump through to demonstrate that their students are really learning and are studying for the number of hours required by compulsory school attendance laws. Thus cyber charter schools threaten to greatly increase the regulation of our homeschools because charter "homeschools" are so heavily regulated. This column discusses the origin and nature of cyber charter schools, problems they are causing, and what we can do.
Background on Charter Schools and Cyber Charter Schools
Individuals and organizations (including businesses and corporations) who want to start charter schools must get an approved agency (often a local school board) to "charter" or sponsor them. As public schools, they are almost always under the same requirements as other public schools to comply with the standards set by Goals 2000 and administer state-mandated tests to their students. (It should be noted that with the recent passage of the "No Child Left Behind" federal education act, all public and private schools that receive any federal education money will be required to administer tests in reading and math to students in grades three through eight each year.) However, to encourage the development of charter schools and to allow them to try new approaches to education, they are free from some of the other regulations that conventional public schools must comply with.
Many charter schools now in operation seem a lot like conventional public schools. However, some are being organized as cyber (or virtual) charter schools, meaning students work in their homes using computers. Of course, cyber charter schools claim that students rely on books, hands-on activities, etc. as well as computers.
Cyber charter schools offer great opportunities for entrepreneurs to make money. They receive money from the government. There are no expenses for school buildings, transportation, lunches, athletic programs, etc. Since parents do most of the teaching, few teachers are required, so salary costs are much lower. It is much easier to make money this way than through a conventional private school that has to depend on tuition and independent fund raising.
However, people developing charter schools need to be careful not to alarm supporters of conventional public schools, including teachers, administrators, teachers unions, and parents. Some charter schools claim they will enroll at-risk and special education students. This, they say, will benefit conventional public schools by reducing the number of problem students they have. Because public schools and districts are increasingly being judged (and possibly funded) on the basis of how their students score on standardized tests, some public school people find the idea appealing. Get rid of as many low scoring students as possible, or at least place them in a separate charter school program, test score averages increase, and the school looks a lot better.
Charter schools, especially cyber charter schools, also market aggressively to homeschoolers and potential homeschoolers, who represent their most promising market. These families are more open to alternative approaches to education. They are used to learning at home and in their communities. Schools can't complain that they are losing students since homeschoolers are not currently enrolled in public schools. In fact, charter schools can claim that they are bringing homeschoolers back into the public schools since money for charter schools is funneled through public school districts that generally keep some of it.
It's amazing: It's obvious that charter schools are a serious threat to public schools, and yet many public schools and state departments of education are actually supporting charter schools and working to help them get established! Among other things, they miss the obvious point that even if charter schools were to begin by enrolling only homeschoolers and at-risk and special needs students, they would soon be recruiting other students and thus really decreasing the money, jobs, and prestige of public schools.
Cyber charter schools can afford to make what at first may appear to be attractive offers to homeschoolers. Free computers. Free curriculum. Resource teachers available when you need them. Reimbursements for some educational supplies and extracurricular activities. Some parents will undoubtedly be interested. Unfortunately, however, cyber charter schools create serious problems for homeschoolers.
How Do Cyber Charter Schools Create Problems For Homeschoolers?
• Cyber charter schools are likely to change people's understanding of homeschooling. Because cyber charter schools are based in homes, many people, including some homeschoolers, will assume they are homeschools. Cyber charter schools' aggressive marketing to homeschoolers adds to this. In other words, marketers either do not understand or are deliberately blurring the extremely important distinctions between homeschools and cyber charter schools because homeschoolers are their most promising target market. In addition, the fact that the other target markets are often so-called problem students the public schools don't want supports the impression that some people have that homeschoolers are kids who couldn't handle or do well in conventional schools.
• Cyber charter schools offer public school officials a way to get homeschoolers into the public school system by convincing them to enroll in cyber charter schools. They also give school officials a long-awaited opportunity to increase their control and regulation of homeschools, since cyber charter schools are public schools and must comply with many of the regulations conventional public schools are under.
• Cyber charter schools raise the old question of accountability with new urgency. As homeschoolers, we have been working hard for over 20 years to convince legislators and the general public that homeschooling works and that homeschoolers do not need to be regulated by the government. We are finally at a point where homeschooling is pretty well accepted, although we have to continue to work to maintain the freedoms we have reclaimed.
Of course, cyber charter schools will be deluged with demands that they be accountable. There are all the old concerns such as whether kids can and will really learn enough of the right stuff outside conventional classrooms and whether they will put in enough hours on school work to meet compulsory attendance laws. Taxpayers want to know how their money is being spent and whether they're getting their money's worth. In addition, because charter schools are public schools, students are required to take the state-mandated standardized tests required of other public school students and follow the standards set by Goals 2000.
All this adds up to a whale of a lot of regulation of the kind we homeschoolers have been opposing and working to prevent for a long time. But despite our efforts to educate people about homeschooling, once these regulations are in place for "homeschool charter schools," there will be a great deal of pressure to apply them to all homeschoolers, since many people will not understand the difference between cyber charter schools and homeschools or will not think the difference is significant enough to justify regulating homeschools less than cyber charter schools.
• Cyber charter schools set the dangerous precedent of government regulation within our homes. Cyber charter schools will undoubtedly monitor the time a student spends on the computer as one way of answering demands for accountability. The technology is available to monitor the time someone is using their computer, but it is very difficult to know whether it is the student himself or a sibling, parent, or someone else. One way to overcome this problem would be to install a surveillance camera of the type that is now available so cyber charter school personnel can actually see who is working at the computer. The extent to which the government and corporations will know what goes on inside the homes and minds of cyber charter school students is frightening.
Countering Arguments in Support of Cyber Charter Schools
Countering the idea that it is wrong to deprive parents and children of the opportunities that cyber charter schools offer:
Of course, homeschoolers have worked long and hard for many years to protect the right of parents to choose for their children an education consistent with their principles and beliefs. We understand that in the best of all worlds, parents who are willing to accept all the restrictions and drawbacks of a cyber charter school should have the right to enroll their children in one. There may be times when a cyber charter school, despite all its disadvantages, may be better than the local public school. So in the best of all worlds, cyber charter schools would co-exist harmoniously with homeschools. Students in cyber charter schools would not be called homeschoolers. The general public would understand that cyber charter schools are regulated in many ways that homeschools are not. Parents could choose among educational options that include homeschools and cyber charter schools.
Unfortunately, we do not live in the best of all worlds. Given the advantages cyber charter schools gain by recruiting homeschoolers and their aggressive marketing strategy, they are likely to call their students homeschoolers. Even if they didn't, much of the general public would still lump homeschoolers and cyber charter school students together and call them all homeschoolers. Only people who knew a lot about the subject would grasp the important distinction between the two. In addition, there are parents who want to homeschool or think it would be best for their children, but they think they don't have enough money or confidence or education or whatever. These people may decide they can manage a cyber charter school program, and they will want to call themselves homeschoolers.
So we have to either oppose cyber charter schools marketed to homeschoolers or sacrifice homeschooling (an approach to education that clearly works very well for many different families) to cyber charter schooling (an approach that is unproved, relies heavily on children's use of computers, and brings strong government regulation into the homes of families). Do we want to risk homeschooling as we know it today for the sake of a few families that might benefit from cyber charter schools?
Countering the idea that homeschoolers should receive tax dollars because we pay taxes:
• There is no such thing as a free lunch. If we accept tax dollars, we cannot avoid increased government regulation.
• We pay taxes for services we hope never to use, such as jails and fire departments. Many people pay taxes that support public schools but never use them, including people without children and private schoolers.
• To be sure, there would be many advantages to providing more support in the form of tax dollars for families. However, it would be better to, for example, increase tax deductions and provide tax credits for dependents, which would give families tax dollars without strings attached.
What We Can Do
• We can inform other homeschoolers and parents considering homeschooling about the problems with charter schools. We need to take responsibility for telling them, since it is unlikely that anyone else will. We need to counter the seemingly attractive offers of free curriculums, computers, and support teachers that charter schools are making to homeschoolers and point out the serious drawbacks to charter schools, so parents have enough information to make truly informed decisions. We need to act now. Homeschoolers are already being contacted by promoters trying to set up cyber charter schools.
Here is an area where we can have a major impact. If homeschoolers refuse to enroll in cyber charter schools and if we work to oppose them, they will have major problems getting going.
• We can oppose cyber charter schools if they are proposed for our community or state, especially if we live in a district that is being asked to sponsor a state-wide cyber charter school. For information, check the national charter school web site at www.uscharterschools.org and follow the links to your state or local area. Or call the state department of education's charter school liaison. Also, attend school board meetings at which cyber charter schools are discussed.
One way we can increase the force of our opposition to cyber charter schools is by helping public school supporters see that cyber charter schools are not in their self-interest. Critical as we may be of public schools, in this situation it is better for us to work with public school supporters than for us to sit by and watch public schools use their power and money to help cyber charter schools, which can do in both homeschools and public schools. We can prepare fact sheets that explain to public school supporters how cyber charter schools will take students, tax dollars, jobs, and prestige away from them. Because cyber schools can be operated for so much less money than conventional schools, it may become even more difficult for school districts to raise funds from local communities, since taxpayers will think that education should cost a lot less. We can distribute the fact sheets at school board meetings and meetings that charter school people hold to promote their schools and send them as letters to the editor of our local paper.
• If we can't stop cyber charter schools, we can work to ensure that families who enroll in them are not called "homeschoolers." There is so much variation among homeschoolers that we would not want to try to define what a homeschooler IS. But we can certainly say that anyone who is enrolled full-time in a public school, even if that public school is a charter school, is NOT a homeschooler. They can choose some other term: independent student, charter school student, alternative student, whatever. But our homeschooling freedoms will be much more secure if we make it clear that students enrolled in charter schools are NOT homeschoolers.
Cyber charter schools threaten to change people's understanding of homeschooling and undermine our freedoms by leading to greatly increased regulation of homeschools. It is our responsibility to inform parents of the risks that accompany the tempting offers for free curriculums, computers, and teaching assistance. We can also oppose the formation of cyber charter schools in our state, especially by informing public school people of the threat cyber charter schools pose to public schools.
© 2002 Larry and Susan Kaseman
March-April 2002 - Articles and Columns
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