- The Washington Times - Tuesday, September 3, 2002

For those interested in education for autodidactics, the future has arrived. Cyber schools are now available for anyone who has a computer and a desire to learn. And the much discussed home schooling movement has an educational tool at its disposal that virtually addresses any critique the educational establishment can direct at it. Well, not any critique.

Public educators contend that for-profit schools are draining resources from public schools. Under many state laws, set up to encourage competition, a district that loses a student to a school chartered by another district is mandated to make payments for the child's education. On-line schools, freed from geographic boundaries, have entered the competition for students and the tax dollars that follow them.

About 50 of those on-line institutions have taken hold, with students and teachers communicating via telephone, chat rooms and e-mail. These on-line schools aggressively seek students across broad regions confusing, and often exasperating, accrediting bodies and state education boards.

Considering the widely recognized failure of public education, these cyber schools offer unique opportunities for students to study at their own pace, in an individually tailored curriculum with daily feedback on performance.

It is precisely the strength of cyber schools that most worries public educators. Public education rarely offers an opportunity for students to study at their own pace, nor does public education offer individualized instruction. Most significantly, is the potential loss of jobs a matter that most concerns teacher unions?

Hence the emergence of an educational battlefield pitting cyber schools often for-profit entities against public school educators, primarily the National Education Association and the American Federation of Teachers. The issue public educators use to promote their position is the use of tax levied funds, albeit that may be a Trojan Horse for other more general concerns.

One of the first cyber schools, the Florida Virtual School, launched in 1997 to relieve overcrowded districts, has caught on statewide with 5,000 students in 67 countries now participating. This school is funded directly by the state and doesn't get revenue from other districts. But the precedent hasn't been lost on public educators who fear a significant reduction in the resources allocated for public schools.

Of course, at the moment, despite the hand-wringing, there isn't really much that should worry public educators. With fewer than 50,000 students nationwide, cyber schools account for a tiny fraction of the K through 12 field that presently encompasses about 53 million students and a budget of nearly $400 billion annually. The concern emanates from the potential cyber schools have for changing education, not the present reality.

When school districts sponsor cyber schools, public money can be used to sustain the program. Conversely, when parents home-school on their own they generally are not eligible for public funds. As a consequence, for-profit entities actively seek out sponsoring school districts to serve as incubators for their products and services.

Some critics of cyber schools contend local tax revenues shouldn't pay for a school that local voters have no say in running. At the beginning of the 2001-2002 school year Einstein one of the largest cyber schools was attempting to fend off 24 different lawsuits involving 120 school districts as plaintiffs. The suits allege cyber schools do not qualify as charter schools; they are not deserving of public money and they are not responsive to local constituencies.

These lawsuits are the opening shot in what is likely to be an extensive battle. Although the big guns clearly are on the side of public education, the future result is anything but assured. Despite the litigation launched against them, cyber schools represent a desire for change on the part of parents fed up with the nonperformance of public schools. Moreover, technological innovation invites reform of precisely this kind. Public educators will fight against this school alternative because it is in their interest to do so, but in the end I'm persuaded technology will triumph.

In the short term, however, a battle will be fought in which public educators will use any means at their disposal to oppose reform and maintain the status quo. Unfortunately what is lost in this calculus is the welfare of students. Then again, students don't pay union dues.

Herbert London, president of the Hudson Institute and the John M. Olin Professor of Humanities at New York University, is author of "Decade of Denial," recently published by Lexington Books.

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