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Education Reporter

Online Public Virtual Schools Gain Favor
Teachers Unions Cry Foul
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Some public school districts have begun experimenting with innovative online learning programs as a way to reach homeschooled students, raising the hackles of teachers unions fearing a loss of state-certified teaching jobs.

The Minnesota Virtual Academy began in November 2002 under a state law passed last spring and now enrolls 280 students from outside the small, rural district that created it. It uses the curriculum and other services provided by K12 Inc., a company led by former U.S. Secretary of Education William J. Bennett which now operates virtual academies in 11 states.

The district employs 15 state-certified teachers who work out of their homes around the state, communicating with students and their parents by e-mail and telephone. Students complete lessons online, using computers and mailed learning materials. Field trips and occasional face-to-face activities are organized by the teachers. The district receives $5,100 for each student who transferred from another district to the academy this year.

Minnesota's largest teachers union and two other school districts have challenged the legality of state funding of the academy. In a lawsuit filed October 9, Education Minnesota (an affiliate of the National Education Association and the American Federation of Teachers) asserted that the online program does not provide adequate supervision by state-certified teachers. The state argues that certified teachers are sufficiently involved to comply with the law. In addition, online students must meet the same state standards and take the same tests as other Minnesota students. (Education Week, 10-29-03)

In neighboring Wisconsin, hundreds of students have enrolled in Wisconsin Virtual Academy, another partnership between a small, rural district and K12. At least six Wisconsin cyber-schools offer online learning for students whose needs cannot be met in traditional classrooms. The state Department of Public Instruction and Wisconsin's largest teachers unions are critical of online instruction because of the limited contact between students and a licensed teacher.

Virtual-school promoters discount the criticisms. "Were bringing home-schoolers back into the public schools, and we think that's a good thing," said Dan Bauer, head of the Monroe Independent Education Charter High School, a cyber-school with 45 students, in an interview with the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel (11-29-03). "If we don't do it, the private companies are going to come in and we will lose out."

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