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February 20th, 2012

Online Public Schools: Why are Senate Democrats and The Des Moines Register attacking Public School Options?

By Brian Kennedy

Increasingly around the nation, school choice and education reform are a bipartisan issue.  Conservatives like Florida Governor Jeb Bush and liberals like New York City’s Michael Bloomberg agree that empowering parents to choose the school that best suits their child’s learning needs results in better schools, higher student achievement, more diplomas and fewer dropouts.

Unfortunately no such bi-partisan consensus has emerged in Iowa. The Senate Democrats and their allies at The Des Moines Register Editorial page have declared a war against Iowa’s latest small step towards opening access to public school options.

Recognizing that Iowa families had very limited access to digital learning, the Iowa Department of Education recently authorized two school districts to operate full-time public online schools.  Students are instructed online by a licensed teacher and utilize a state approved digital curriculum. Students take the same standardized test and upon graduation receive a diploma recognized by colleges, universities and the United States military.

Online public schools are certainly not novel.  States have offered digital learning for more than a decade; now in 29 states students can learn from full-time online public schools.  This year more than 250,000 K-12 students will receive their instruction online.

Families chose online public schools for many reasons.  A flexible model makes sense for gifted learners bored in the classroom or a challenged student needs more individualized instruction. Sometimes families are looking for an online solution to accommodate health issues, work transfers, military deployments, or to escape a negative social environment.  Students pursuing Olympic medals or careers in the arts have found online schools a solution to meet their busy training schedules. In fact, one of the finalists in last year’s American Idol competition is an online public school student.

Here in Iowa, the Department of Education never could have imagined the firestorm of criticism resulting from the simple proposition that every Iowa family ought to have access to the model of instruction that best fits their child’s individual learning needs. Apparently some still think parents can’t be trusted to make the right choice for their children.

It’s ironic that the idea of a new choice has caused such angst.  Iowa has long allowed open-enrollment and also permits parents to chose homeschool or utilize a tax credit funded tuition scholarship to access private or parochial schools.  In those instances lawmakers and school district administrators have grown comfortable allowing parents a choice. Yet not when it comes to the choice of enrolling in an online public school.

Around he country, online public schools have been championed by Republicans and Democrats alike. Governor Jeb Bush launched the Florida Virtual School which is now one of the nation’s largest. The administrations of Indiana’s Mitch Daniels, Wisconsin’s Scott Walker, Minnesota’s Tim Pawlenty have all been proponents of expanding access to online learning.  Rick Santorum has the distinction as perhaps the first Presidential candidate to have enrolled his children in an online public school.

Democrats such as West Virginia’s Bob Wise, Arizona’s Janet Napolitano and Pennsylvania’s Ed Rendell all presided over states that embraced online public schools.  In fact, former Colorado State Senate President and Obama Administration Department of Education official Peter Groff recently said that online public schools offer a “life-line” to students and an opportunity for families that was never previously available.

But stuck in the status quo mindset that has cost Iowa its once stellar record of school performance, Iowa Senate Democrats start by questioning the legality of the State Department of Education granting permission to public school districts to operate public online schools.  Really, that’s against the law? Or they attack the fact that Iowa districts are contracting with “for-profit out-of-state” curriculum providers to deliver digital instruction, even though nearly every text book in every school was purchased from a for-profit out-of-state company.

The ultimate motivation for this attack on digital learning is the same as the attacks against charter schools, tuition scholarship tax credits and other forms of school choice. The critics seek to maintain a public education monopoly designed to empower and fund administrators and unions and the political campaigns of their allies. The interests of students and rights of parents are not their foremost concern.

Sadly, the prospects for comprehensive education reform in this year’s legislature look pretty bleak.  But with control of the State Senate in the balance, education reform, school choice and the question of whether parents or school administrators should ultimately have say over a child’s education, will no doubt be a hot topic on the campaign trail this fall.

Brian Kennedy of Bettendorf is former Chairman of the Republican Party of Iowa and Chairman of Iowans for Public School Options.

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