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IDAHO VIRTUAL ACADEMY

      Several members have asked for a clarification of the reasons for ICHE's, CHOIS's, and HSLDA's opposition to home educators' involvement with the new Idaho Virtual Academy. By this memorandum, the ICHE Board and the CHOIS Board would like to offer an explanation of its resistance to home educators' involvement in this arrangement.

Background:

      In 1998 the Idaho legislature created Title 33, Chapter 52 of the Idaho Code which authorized public school districts to create "Public Charter Schools." The expressed intention of the legislature was to "provide parents and students with expanded choices in the types of educational opportunities that are available within the public school system." (Idaho Code, subsection 33-5202[6]) The statutes expressly anticipated the utilization of "virtual distance learning and on-line learning."

      In recent weeks, the Butte County School District (Arco, Idaho) announced that it had approved the creation of the state's first internet charter elementary school, the "Idaho Virtual Academy." The school was created in cooperation with K12, a private (for profit) company founded by former U.S. Secretary of Education, Bill Bennett, to operate and provide curriculum to virtual charter schools and to individuals across the country. Home educators in Idaho have been specifically targeted by direct mailings which invite parents to participate in the district's electronic charter school. Residency within the district is not required in order to participate.

      The Academy offers enrolled students free use of a computer and printer, free internet access and computer software, instructional materials, and the oversight of a certificated teacher. It also offers stiff competition in an arena traditionally dominated by the public school monopoly.

      The impetus for a district to create such an entity is primarily financial. For each student who signs up to participate in the Academy, the district will receive the full financial allocation from the state. The fact that the student lives elsewhere; the fact that the district is not required to pay for, construct, or maintain the usual school facilities; and the fact that the district is not required to maintain the normal levels of student/teacher ratios to educate these students is irrelevant. The district is still permitted to collect the full allocation of funds as though the student were present in a normal classroom setting. Some of those funds are retained by the district. The remaining funds are paid by the district to the company providing the program for the district, K12.

Importance of Viewpoint:

      In assessing whether one should participate in the Academy, it is critically important to define one's perspective: is the issue being considered by the parent of a public school student or by the parent of a home educated student? The risks and rewards for the second group are dramatically different than they are for the first group.

      Imagine a continuum of academic and social excellence. At one end are found Idaho's public schools. Collectively, they produce average academic results. They tolerate all manner of social dysfunctions. They produce peer-dominated students. They are legally prohibited from considering certain philosophical and spiritual perspectives on the subjects they teach.

      At the other end of the continuum are home educated students. They tend to excel academically. Behavioral problems are addressed as they arise. The students learn to interact well with people of all ages and circumstances. The parents are free to integrate their own philosophical and spiritual perspectives into the materials being taught.

      Somewhere between these two extremes lies the Academy.

      A student from a brick and mortar public school who enrolls in the Academy may be taking a step forward from mediocrity toward academic and social improvement.

      A home educated student who enrolls in the Academy, on the other hand, risks academic and social decline. The parents' ability to flexibly train their son or daughter in the most effective manner is traded for a rigid, but technologically advanced, academic program subject to governmental oversight, management, and ultimate authority.

      Any discussion of the pros and cons of the Academy must be cognizant of whether the student being enrolled was previously educated at home or in the public school system. For the student currently educated in the public school system, the move to the Academy may or may not be an improvement. For the student currently educated at home, the move would be a step in the wrong direction.

Risks & Rewards for Public School Students:

      Charter schools are relatively new on the educational scene. Early indications are that they produce improvements both in the areas of academic achievement and social interaction skills.

      Almost all data collected over the years also concludes that the single most important factor which results in improved academic performance is the active involvement of the student's parents in the educational process. The significant increase in parental involvement required under the Academy's program by itself will likely yield a measurable improvement in the academic performance of students enrolled in this program. The computer hardware and services available to enrolled students also promises to yield technologically "state of the art" instruction. The removal of the student from the institutional classroom setting will undoubtedly also produce students who are less peer-dominated than those students found in normal public school settings.

      For the typical public school student who enrolls in the Academy, improvements should result both academically and socially. However, parents considering such a move should be aware that they are not home-educating their student.

      Although the education may occur primarily in the home, the statutes and the program rules are very clear that the Academy is not homeschooling. It is a public school program. With that status come several significant restraints.

      First, parents are not free to teach their children in the manner best suited to their needs. The program dictates that the basic core curriculum be followed in the manner, order, and time frames specified by the school. Students are required to stick to the hour requirements dictated by the program and to the educational plan specified by the state certificated teacher assigned to them. With 20% to 70% of the instruction on-line, parental interaction is increasingly distanced from the student. With each student working independently, sibling interaction is marginalized, as well.

      Second, the K12 curriculum cannot accommodate the particular philosophical or spiritual tenets of the parents. Indeed, the curriculum intentionally stays away from any materials which may be regarded as even remotely spiritual. Although evolution is taught as a theory, no effort is permitted in the curriculum to present the science supporting "intelligent design" theories. Instead, the humanistic pillars of the public education dogma remain intact.

      Third, as a public school program, the student's home becomes an unofficial annex of the public school buildings, even if located outside the boundaries of the Butte County School District. As such, the student's home is regarded as a satellite campus potentially subject to inspection or monitoring by district personnel and other governmental agencies. In other states where virtual charter schools have been established, though not initially required, curriculum audits and home visits have been mandated after the system was put in place. In some cases the type of contractual arrangement under which the Academy operates has been used by social services personnel to force home inspections.

      In short, although the parents of students who opt to leave the local public school in favor of the Academy should expect academic and social improvements, they should understand that the program is not the equivalent of home education and may not produce the results enjoyed by home educated students. For parents who will be satisfied with these half-measures of success and who are willing for their homes to potentially be subject to bureaucratic control, the choice to enroll their children in the Academy and receive the many technological perks available under the program may be determined to be an acceptable risk.

Risks & Rewards for Home Educated Students:

      Unfortunately, formerly home-educated students who might opt to enroll in the Academy have far more to lose.

      It is true that the Academy offers its curriculum and the use of a computer free of charge. However, it also requires oversight by state certificated teachers. The downside risks are substantial.

      First, the curriculum is dictated by the Academy program. Those who have enjoyed the freedom and flexibility to pursue subjects as interests arise without regard to the lockstep requirements inherent in any public school program will find the rigidity of the program stifling. The enrichment of intergenerational unit studies and projects with the family are replaced by grade-specific teaching tracks for each child.

      Second, for those parents for whom spiritual and moral instruction are a significant component of the total educational package, the Academy is notably lacking in resources. Indeed, as a public school program, the Academy is legally prohibited from offering instruction with a spiritual component. Any supplementary curriculum with religious content may not be used to fulfill the hourly requirements demanded by the program.

      Third, the freedom from bureaucratic oversight which has been enjoyed by parents who home educate their children will be conspicuously absent. The daily public school teacher oversight will force the school district's version of accountability onto the parents. Parents will be required to commit to carry out the directives of the certificated teachers running the program. Home educating parents will be reduced to managers of a largely computer-dependent program, and record keepers of minutes per day of instruction in each subject for each child. With 20% to 70% of instructional time spent on-line, the parent becomes replaced by a machine, removing from instruction the key element of success.

      Fourth, parents contemplating enrolling their children in the Academy must carefully consider their "exit strategy." It may be that the move from home education to the Academy is a one-way street. With daily assessments in each subject area, along with the state-mandated assessment tests required for students to progress to the next grade, a large body of data subject to governmental interpretation permanently exists in the child's state records. For parents of students scoring below the threshold of the required assessment test, a later attempt to return to traditional home education may prove very difficult. This is especially of concern for special needs children who benefit most from parental instruction, but cannot meet the state assessment test standards. These students generate large amounts of federal entitlement dollars as long as they remain in the state system. As the parent leaves the Academy, all of the educational records of the child will remain with the public school district. If those records show below assessment standard performance while the student was enrolled in the Academy, the state may try to prohibit a return to home education using the child's test scores as evidence that the parents lack the ability to teach their own child. This, coupled with the data required in the 17-page enrollment contract (including health and immunization records, non-enrolled sibling information, family income, and release of student photos/videos taken by the school), is made available to the Idaho Department of Education, social services, and other governmental agencies and may be used as further evidence of an objectionable private homeschool environment. In that event, it will matter little that the parents may be very capable of providing an education at home that is far superior to that provided by the Academy.

      In addition, in states such as Alaska, where large numbers of home educators have enrolled in virtual charter schools, the popularity of the state program has been used to redefine private home education. Opportunities previously open to independent home educators have been curtailed by administrative policy. More importantly, the high regard with which home education was previously viewed by the Alaska State Legislature has dwindled as state costs for virtual charter home education have increased. Therefore, the decisions of individual families to come under the state programs have eroded the freedoms of those who choose not to participate.

Conclusions:

      With these issues in mind, the Boards of ICHE and of CHOIS have concluded that, while enrollment in the Academy may have some advantages for those students currently in the public school system, for home educated students the risks are not worth the "rewards." Ultimately, home educators must remain reticent to turn over their children's education to the public school system, even if it has been redecorated in new, high-tech packaging.

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