The results of a two-part comparative straw poll of superintendents’ attitudes toward virtual schooling—through which students can receive an education via the internet, regardless of their physical location—reveal some interesting changes from April to October of 2001.

Overall, superintendents who answered the questions in October were more likely to favor state control on issues such as funding and certification, while those who voted in April tended to favor local control on these same issues. An exception was curriculum standards, with the October group more strongly favoring locally dictated standards than their colleagues in the spring.

Why the discrepancies? Recent challenges to the virtual school movement in Pennsylvania might have something to do with the results, as education leaders in the Keystone State are embroiled in a debate over who should pay for the education of virtually schooled students. In any case, the results suggest that educators are far from reaching a clear resolution on these issues.

The polling took place at the eSchool News Superintendents’ Technology Summit (STS), held Oct. 21-23 at the Westin Mission Hills Resort in Palm Springs, Calif., and April 30-May 1 at the Wyndham Resort in Ft. Lauderdale, Fla.

STS is a national forum that delivers executive briefings about learning technologies to senior school leaders and their cabinet members. Summit participants were invited to help set the technology agenda for the nation’s schools by participating in consensus-building sessions.

At each summit, attendees heard the expert testimony of three speakers on subjects critical to the integration and management of learning technologies and technology policy.

At the October 2001 Palm Springs summit, attendees heard presentations on the Children’s Internet Protection Act, using technology to combat the teacher shortage, and virtual schooling.

Using handheld polling technology provided by the Leadership Technology Group, an overwhelming majority of attendees selected virtual schooling as the topic they wanted to discuss, with the goal of arriving at a consensus on several key issues.

Ten of the virtual schooling questions aligned with identical questions asked of a similar group at the April 2001 Ft. Lauderdale summit, with some surprising similarities and differences in the longitudinal comparison of the results.

At the Ft. Lauderdale summit, attendees came up with a position statement that read, “The evolution of virtual schooling needs clear understanding of who is responsible for student learning as it relates to local, state, and federal guidelines, standards, and accountability.”

Judging from the results of the Palm Springs summit in October, however, it appears the nation’s education leaders have some work to do to establish such an understanding.

When asked whether they agreed or disagreed with the statement, “Certification of teachers should be approved by the virtual school,” the majority of respondents disagreed. But in the April summit, 53 percent of respondents strongly disagreed, while in October only 38 percent strongly disagreed and the responses were more varied.

Similarly, when asked “Should credit be issued through the local district or the virtual school?” a clear majority (63 percent) of April summiteers said credit should be issued through the school district, while the October group was evenly divided on the issue.

One issue both groups strongly agreed on was that virtual schools should be required to offer curriculum aligned to the state and local standards of the students’ place of residence. In fact, participants in the October summit agreed even more strongly than those in April (61 percent to 50 percent). And none of the October respondents strongly disagreed, down from 15 percent in April.

“I was pleased to see that on the questions about curriculum alignment there was an increase in agreement,” said Linda Pittenger, project director for the Kentucky Virtual High School. “It seems that people are embracing this idea [virtual schooling] as a serious option for serious students.”

The October STS group was also charged with thinking up new questions on the topic of virtual schooling. Once the questions were established, the entire group was polled to determine their thoughts on these up-to-date issues.

The group of superintendents and cabinet members in Palm Springs had some interesting opinions on the topic of virtual schools, with most tending to favor more state responsibility.

The October group was asked, “Who should be responsible for certification of staff, setting graduation requirements, and evaluation of students who graduate from virtual schools?” Their choices were the state, the local district, the virtual school itself, or the federal government.

Responses varied fairly widely, but the majority (38 percent) answered that the state should maintain responsibility for these items, and a large group (29 percent) said the responsibility should fall to the school district.

Fewer respondents (24 percent) answered that virtual schools should set their own standards for certification, and the smallest group (10 percent) voted for the federal government.

October STS attendees also were asked who they thought should pay for virtual schools: local taxpayers, the state, vouchers, or the federal government. The respondents overwhelmingly said virtual schools should be funded by the state (67 percent), while a few (19 percent) said vouchers and fewer still (14 percent) said local taxpayers. None of the respondents felt the federal government should fund virtual schools.

Given the problems experienced by school systems in Pennsylvania, where tension has arisen between virtual schools and their bricks-and-mortar counterparts, it’s no surprise participants said state governments should fund virtual schools.

In a highly critical Oct. 16 report on the state’s growing cyber-school movement, the Pennsylvania School Boards Association (PSBA) claimed that charter cyber schools have chewed up $18 million in unbudgeted expenses from the state’s public education system. The association also said the cyber schools have attracted mostly students who were home-schooled last year at no taxpayer expense.

The association presented its report as part of its push for legislation that would provide state funding and specific regulation of online charter schools. Seven cyber schools—five of them new this year—are providing internet-based education to students across Pennsylvania.

The association filed a lawsuit in April arguing that cyber charter schools are not currently permitted under a 1997 law that authorized the creation of publicly funded charter schools.

One of the association’s key concerns is that under the charter school law, cyber schools are funded under a formula based on the per-pupil spending of the student’s home district, yet the districts receive no state subsidies for cyber school students.

More than half of the state’s school districts are refusing to pay the tuition because they want the authority to decide whether their students can enroll in cyber schools.

State lawmakers have introduced two bills intended to establish guidelines for cyber charter schools. A measure sponsored by Rep. Jess Stairs, R-Westmoreland, would require the state to fund the schools, and legislation sponsored by Sen. James Rhoades, R-Schuylkill, would require cyber schools to sign agreements with local districts before enrolling their students.

Other states with virtual schools—such as Michigan, Kentucky, and Illinois—have not experienced the kind of conflicts Pennsylvania has because they established their virtual schools as state-funded initiatives, said Liz Pape, chief executive officer of the Virtual High School Inc., which provides online high school courses to school districts.

In these other states, “The money is coming from the state, so there is less opportunity to take the money away from districts,” Pape said. But in Pennsylvania, “setting up [cyber] charter schools where funding follows the students … unfortunately sets up a tension that doesn’t need to exist.”

At the October STS, a surprising number (77 percent) of superintendents said they do believe there is a potential for negative socialization of virtually schooled students. A large majority (75 percent) of those polled also said they believe there should be an accreditation process for all virtual schools.

Pittenger said she was “disappointed but not surprised” that 77 percent of respondents thought there was a potential for negative socialization among virtual school students.

“I think that has to do with a lack of exposure to these kinds of programs,” she said. “I hear people say all the time how surprised they are when they see the close relationships students have with their teachers and even with other students. Some more shy students actually see increased socialization as a result of these programs.”

The fourth installment of the eSchool News Superintendents’ Technology Summit will take place in Austin, Texas, March 10-12. At this spring’s summit, the consensus-building event will be presented in a debate format during a 90-minute Sunday session.

Dueling experts each will have 10 minutes to present their side (pro or con) of the three conference topics: platform standardization, the outsourcing of school technology functions, and the use of application service providers.

After each set of debaters, participants will vote in favor of one side or the other. They will then vote for the topic they want to explore on their own in greater detail the next day. After further discussion on the selected topic, the group will create a document outlining their beliefs on the chosen topic.

Related links:
eSchool News Superintendents’ Technology Summit
http://www.eschoolnews.com/conferences/sts

Kentucky Virtual High School
http://www.kvhs.org

Pennsylvania School Boards Association
http://www.psba.org

Pennsylvania charter school movement
http://www.pde.psu.edu/charter.html