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Online charter schools pose risk to public system

For adults, falling leaves evoke Norman Rockwell scenes of school drop-offs, homework and planning Halloween costumes. For a growing number of students in North America, that picture is totally different.

Rather than hoisting a backpack and throwing leaves in the school playground, on Monday morning a lone child sits at a computer at home and logs into a standardized off-the-shelf web-based program.

An increasing number of families in North America are choosing to enrol their children in cyber-charter schools, an independent school that is publicly funded but delivered by a private for-profit online-based company.

This new model of schooling is exploding onto the U.S. education scene. Off-the-shelf courses, facilitated by distant and often lower-skilled educators, are much cheaper than running a physical school, meaning there are big profits to be made.

The field is dominated by two corporate players: K12 Inc. and Connections Academy, but tech firms such as Apple, Dell, Google, Intel and Microsoft are also trying to corner the market. The kindergarten-to-Grade-12 online learning industry is expected to grow by 43 per cent between 2010 and 2015, with revenues reaching $24.4 billion.

As Rupert Murdoch, controversial newspaper magnate and owner of Wireless Generation, stated: “When it comes to K through 12 education, we see a $500-billion sector in the U.S. alone that is waiting desperately to be transformed.”

Though the cyber school model has not yet made its way into Alberta, it is based on the charter school model, of which Alberta has been Canada’s pioneer since Bill 19. The model also fits well with the Redford government’s new approach to public services; government as facilitator rather than service provider.

Where there is big business, there is big lobbying: campaign contributions are making education tech companies significant players in elections. Alberta is not immune.

With Speak Up 2010, it launched a survey that was run by a U.S. organization financed by six tech firms, all with deep links to companies involved in the online education sector. The Alberta Teachers’ Association pointed out the potential conflict of interest at the time.

It is risky to confuse the integration of technology in classrooms with the delivery of education by large, private for-profit companies. The issue of technology is a red herring; public schools are just as capable of integrating technology as private ones.

As the Alberta government embarks on reforming its role in service delivery, Albertans have been asking hard questions — what does this mean for the cost and quality of Alberta’s public services?

The Parkland Institute already has good data on private for-profit delivery in health care, showing that it costs more and delivers lower quality health care.

The private for-profit delivery of education needs to be subjected to the same scrutiny.

Can new online charter schools save costs and deliver on student outcomes? The limited evidence shows a patchy and contradictory record.

A 2009 study by the Pennsylvania School Boards Association found cyber charter schools in Pennsylvania, where the model abounds, underperforming in both traditional public schools and bricks-and-mortar charter schools, though in limited urban areas the reverse was true.

Another study by Stanford University’s Center for Research on Education Outcomes concluded, “whatever they’re doing in Pennsylvania is definitely not working and should not be replicated.”

Another risk of the cyber charter schools is the risk implicit in all school privatization — the undermining of the public system. As more students move into cyber schools, their fees leave the public school system, resulting in a decrease in already stretched public school budgets.

Ultimately, cyber schools are about profit and the model has inherent risks for both education outcomes and the quality of the public system.

The evidence indicates that real schools matter for education, and especially for creating the good citizens, leaders and team players Canada will need for the future.

Perhaps the kids are better off playing together in the leaves on the way to a real school. Perhaps a little Norman Rockwell is what we all need.

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