What would you say to a homeschool program that gave you curriculum, a computer, and regular access to experienced schoolteachers—all for free? Does it sound too good to be true? It just might be.
Virtual public education programs are attracting thousands of homeschooling families and come in a variety of forms. The two most well-known models are public school online programs and home-based (or virtual) charter schools.
Many public school districts offer online classes, giving students the opportunity to take classes at the school or from home—students can take all their classes online, or use the online programs to supplement on-campus classes. Additionally, these programs augment enrollment at the public school, resulting in increased state and federal funding.
CHARTER SCHOOLS ARE
PUBLICLY FUNDED, THEY
ARE RESTRICTED FROM
And then there are home-based charter schools—an innovative, fast-growing alternative to traditional public schools.
Home-based charter schools are the 21st-century sequel to brick-and-mortar charter schools. All charter schools are publicly funded, and operate under the sponsorship of a state board of education, local school board, or other entities designated by the state.
What makes home-based charter schools different is the opportunity for students to study from home. Some of these programs are centered around online instruction. Other programs provide a textbook-based curriculum and maintain parent/teacher communication via phone and internet. All of these schools use state-certified curricula, mandate standardized testing, and require the parent to regularly report the child’s progress.
The bottom line is that many of these schools place parents in the role of monitor or guide, not teacher. As Pennsylvania’s WNEP-TV 16 News Station explains in an online article on traditional public cyber schools, “Parents are not the teachers, but they are required to make sure the children are following the cyber school’s curriculum.” 1
The Wisconsin Virtual Academy, an in-home charter school, describes the responsibility of parents who enroll their children in the program: “Parents (or other responsible adults) guide students through the lessons and ensure that children are learning. They also contact teachers when students are experiencing academic problems, help students manage their time and set goals, monitor student work, and fill out daily attendance logs. Parents are also expected to participate in regularly scheduled conference call[s] with their teacher(s).” 2 (emphasis added)
According to the Center for Education Reform, virtual charter schools are active in 19 states, and 92,300 students are currently enrolled across the nation, as of early 2007.
“If we can’t beat ’em, let’s join ’em”
One mission of these virtual schools is to provide a choice for parents who homeschool their children, states Instructor, Scholastic’s magazine for schoolteachers. 3
Kansas public school superintendent Randy Weseman said, “Our virtual school is mostly home schooled students. My philosophy is to work with families and help them become comfortable with public schooling.” 4
While home-based charter schools seek to attract homeschoolers for many reasons, the possibility of increased funding creates a powerful incentive. Just as traditional public schools try to find ways to count homeschoolers as part of their enrollment, thereby increasing per-pupil funding, home-based charter schools provide another way to assimilate homeschoolers into the public school system—and pad charter school budgets with extra government dollars.
“As HSLDA has pointed out in the past, the issue is money and control,” says HSLDA President Mike Smith. “The higher the student enrollment, the more money the school receives.”
Why are charter schools a concern?
Accountability to and control by the government are key components of home-based charter schools. For instance, the Pennsylvania Virtual Charter School (PAVCS) provides parents with a complete curriculum and testing requirements, connects parents with a teacher who monitors the program and to whom the parent is accountable, and requires parents to maintain attendance logs, among other conditions.
“The government takes responsibility for the education of children enrolled in virtual charter schools,” reports the Wisconsin Parents Association. “[The government] controls these schools; and dictates the knowledge, skills, and values their students are to acquire.” 5
Because of this responsibility to the government, home-based charter schools also lose the “genius of flexible, individualized homeschooling,” Mike Smith says. The self-pacing of a home-based charter school, by nature of its government accountability, can never match the flexibility and tailored curriculum that homeschooling offers.
Parents’ ability to integrate religious beliefs with their child’s education is also limited in these schools. Because home-based charter schools are publicly funded, they are restricted from using religion-based curriculum. For example, MTS Minnesota Connections Academy explains that parents interested in their program should be “comfortable with a secular curriculum.” 6 (See the March/April 2007 Court Report to read about one mother’s experience with the curriculum restrictions of a home-based charter school.)
“These are the same issues we fought so hard against in the ’80s and ’90s—in order to win the right to be free from this kind of control,” said HSLDA’s late senior counsel Christopher Klicka. Not only does government control restrict the flexibility and religious component of a child’s education, but it could eventually lead to another problem: If homeschoolers seem to be comfortable submitting to government supervision through these public-school-at-home programs, public school officials and legislators may be further encouraged to regulate independent homeschoolers.
The Idaho Coalition of Home Educators and Christian Homeschoolers of Idaho State elaborate on this threat of increased regulation:
The IDEA [Interior Distance Education of Alaska] program initially included significant freedom and flexibility. Gradually those freedoms have been curtailed as calls for “accountability” have gained traction. The same will occur in Idaho. And sadly, those calls will encompass not only those families enrolled in this [Idaho Distance Education Academy] program, but all traditional home schoolers, as well. The lines that have historically separated public school students from home schoolers will be sufficiently blurred to make it significantly more difficult to maintain our precious home schooling freedoms. 7
Home-based charter schools may fit the needs and lifestyles of some parents and children. But for parents who want to train their children spiritually and academically, at their own pace, these programs contain some of the same roadblocks to that goal as do public schools.
2 Wisconsin Virtual Academy, “Frequently Asked Questions,” www.wivcs.org/faqs/index.html (page no longer available).
3 “Online K–8 Schools Growing,” Instructor, Scholastic, March 2003.
6 MTS Minnesota Connections Academy, parent survey accessed via www.connectionsacademy.com/state/home.asp?schoolCode=mtsmca (page no longer available).
7 Idaho Coalition of Home Educators and Christian Homeschoolers of Idaho State, “The Siren Call: The Dangerous Lure of the Idaho Distance Education Academy.”