States debate ‘face time’ requirement for virtual schools

Teachers at Ohio’s five online charter schools would have to meet with students in person every eight weeks, under proposed changes to a bill that would overhaul that state’s charter school law. Similar rules for online charter schools are under review in other states as well.

Online schools in Ohio also would receive less state aid if multiple students from the same family enroll in the schools, according to the proposal, which has split GOP lawmakers trying to pass the bill by year’s end.

The rewrite of the Ohio charter school bill, originally sponsored by Rep. Jon Husted, passed the Republican-controlled House in March. It attempts to make charter schools more financially accountable while expanding the types of groups that can sponsor the schools.

But Husted disagrees so strongly with a few changes in the Senate version that he might not support the new bill.

“I’m a little worried some of the things being considered are just regulation for the sake of regulation,” said Husted, a Dayton-area Republican. “eSchools having to do personal visits with students—while that may sound good, I’m not sure what it achieves.”

Sen. Robert Gardner, Education Committee chairman, said all he’s heard in two years of hearings is the importance of good teachers. “Yet now we’re going to set up eSchools where students don’t even see a teacher?” said Gardner, a Madison Republican and former classroom teacher.

Ohio lawmakers created charter schools as a competitive alternative to big-city schools, which they said were failing to properly educate children.

The goal was to free the publicly funded but privately run schools from state regulations and allow them to experiment with innovative approaches. The Senate bill would do just the opposite, Husted said. “One of the things that makes charter schools appealing is the freedom they have to operate,” he said. “If we do too much nickel-and-dime regulation of them, we undermine the purpose of having them to begin with.”

Many charter school advocates are furious about the proposed changes affecting Ohio’s online schools.

“You might have a teacher with students who live in Gallipolis and Toledo and Youngstown and Cincinnati,” said Steve Ramsey, president of the Ohio Charter Schools Association. “They could very comfortably teach them using the internet, but if it came to driving to visit them in their home, they’d be in their car all the time and not teaching.”

Also, the proposal to reduce state aid to online schools based on the number of children a family enrolls is unfair to the schools and could be unconstitutional, Ramsey said. Opponents of the state’s charter schools, including most Democrats and Ohio’s teachers unions, say the schools aren’t working. They point to low test scores and several schools that have closed because of financial problems.

The online provisions in the Senate bill are an improvement but still a piecemeal approach, said Tom Mooney, president of the Ohio Federation of Teachers.

“There are a few attempts to rein in the out-of-control eSchools, but it’s not near enough,” Mooney said.

Where online schools are concerned, the question is, “Do we really want to have these, and if so, what kind of safeguards do we want to ensure quality, and how much money should they get?” Mooney said.

The five online charter schools currently operating in Ohio are expected to enroll about 5,200 students this year and receive about $28 million in state aid.

Other states are grappling with similar questions. In Minnesota, for example, current state rules limit the ability of schools to seek state funding for offering their classes to home-schooled students by requiring online programs to include five hours of instruction inside a public-school building each week.

Lawmakers there are considering, among other issues, whether this “face-time” rule hinders the spread of online schooling across the state.

“This is a critical innovation in education that we need to get good at … relatively quickly,” said Minnesota Sen. Steve Kelley (D-Hopkins), who has worked on the topic for several years.


Ohio General Assembly

Minnesota State Legislature

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