Virtual charter schools debated

By Bobby Harrison/NEMS Daily Journal

JACKSON – State policy makers are uncommitted as to whether virtual charter school should be allowed to operate in Mississippi.
While virtual charter schools vary in operations, they generally don’t include a brick and mortar building. Students can work from home or anywhere with an Internet connection. Several private companies provide various forms of virtual learning.
The state Department of Education currently provides some online courses for Mississippi students. Many of the private companies are lobbying Mississippi lawmakers to be included in the charter school legislation under consideration.
When asked about Gov. Phil Bryant’s position, Bryant spokesman Mick Bullock said the governor’s staff was researching the issue.
“Governor Bryant has always been supportive of new technology, and he has asked his policy advisers to research the potential opportunities and drawbacks of online charter schools,” Bullock responded.
Laura Hipp, a spokeswoman for Republican Lt. Gov. Tate Reeves, said the lieutenant governor “is focused on traditional charter schools as a way to give parents a choice in their children’s education.”
Charter schools differ, but in general they receive public funds while operating outside some of the rules and regulations of traditional public schools.
The current state law is limited, saying only 12 charter schools can be created in the state in areas where the public school district is low performing. Current law allows parents in a school district to convert the entire system to charter schools, if approved by voters and by the state Department of Education.
Bryant, Reeves and others have expressed support for greatly expanding the current law, which charter school proponents claim is virtually unworkable. Whether virtual charter schools are part of that expansion is one of the underlying issues of the charter school debate in the current legislative session.
Nancy Loome, executive director of the Parents Campaign, a statewide public education advocacy group, asked legislators not to consider virtual schools as part of any charter expansion.
“Much has been written recently about the abysmal track record of for-profit online charter organizations,” said Loome, referring to a New York Times article and a National Education Policy Center report about how for-profit virtual charter schools are not meeting adequate yearly progress as defined in the federal No Child Left Behind law. She said only one-third of schools operated by K12 Inc., a large for-profit virtual company, are making adequate yearly progress compared to 90 percent of Mississippi schools.
“We do not need to allow those folks to come in here and move our kids backward,” she said.
K12 Inc. has responded to the various studies, saying that almost all educators agree the criteria put forth in the No Child Left Behind law “is not a reliable measure” of student achievement. K12 said the virtual school students are excelling based on other criteria developed by the respective state departments of education and in general are doing so with less money per student than the traditional bricks and mortar schools.
Both Rep. John Moore, R-Brandon, and Sen. Gray Tollison, R-Oxford, chairmen of their respective chamber’s education committees, said they are still studying the virtual charter school issue. Tollison said it’s apparent traditional public schools are not working in some areas, based on the number of failing schools, and he wanted to look at innovative approaches to education.
“Everything is in the hopper at this point,” Moore said “…But we are not going to move into anything in a hurry.”
According to various reports, about 30 states have some form of full-time virtual schools.
bobby.harrison@journalinc.com