Policy

Online Charter Schools Make Teachers Unions Nervous

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From the NYT:

Diane Ravitch, a leading educational historian who until recently favored charter schools, is strongly critical of the virtual charter system. Ms. Ravitch said the system eliminated "brick and mortar schools and it bypasses the unions," mainly for the benefit of for-profit companies.

My mom told me never to accept bricks and mortar from strangers

Not to put too fine a point on it, but: Duh. That's the whole idea.

Virtual charters are just what they sound like: Online charter schools that allow kids and parents from a state or district to choose online schooling, while remaining part of the public school system. They are only possible in states with charter laws that allow, or don't expressly forbid, those charters to go virtual and open up enrollment to the larger population. Kids often, although not always, take classes at home. The schools are frequently run by national companies like K12 Inc. or Connections Academy, which have developed working models for this new kind of education and contract with charters to provide content, equipment, and staff.

In her attempt at criticism, Ravitch has managed to articulate one of the strongest arguments for virtual charter schools.

As the article notes, Ravitch recently switched sides in the debate on education reform. Her despair is understandable: Charters and vouchers have not (yet?) produced the kind of radical systemic change that reformers hoped for, and standards-based reforms like No Child Left Behind haven't dazzled either. But having recently been on the side of reform, Ravitch retains her keen eye for stuff that freaks out unions and the educational establishment. Virtual charters don't tend to use unionized teachers, and if enough kids opt for online schooling, the way education dollars are allocated could change dramatically‚ÄĒundermining the unions' lock on the education industry.

The Times reporter's phrasing "for the benefit of for-profit companies," is odd, however. I suspect it slightly mischaracterizes what Ravitch, a smart and economically literate woman, actually said. Virtual charters are in competition with traditional schools, and they are often (although not always) run by for-profit firms. But that's like saying speedy taxi drivers are trying to beat out lumbering, unpredictable city buses "for the benefit of for-profit companies." It's technically sort of true, but doesn't explain why someone might want to take a cab.

To read more about the fraught relationship between teachers unions and virtual charters, check out my upcoming feature in the next print issue of Reason. (Update: that's the August/September issue.)