Outdated, 20th-century rules are being blamed for impeding plans for a proposed cyber charter school in New York and for artificially deflating the rankings of an online school in Colorado. The problems underscore the need for states to revise their policies to account for 21st-century instructional methods, supporters of the cyberschool movement say.

Plans of conservative pundit William Bennett, a former U.S. Education Secretary, to launch a tuition-free, internet-based charter school in the state of New York have run afoul of state law, according to New York officials. The law in question reportedly rules out any charter school unless its students all are educated in one building.

An attorney for the entity governing New York’s charter schools said education officials must reject the application for the New York Virtual Charter School submitted by Bennett’s company, K12 Inc. Bennett’s firm has established similar schools in Pennsylvania, Colorado, Ohio, Idaho, Minnesota, California, and Arkansas.

The State University of New York (SUNY) Board of Trustees, which must approve charter schools, and staff members of SUNY’s Charter School Institute said a charter school such as the one Bennett’s company is proposing for New York could provide a top-quality education for any child in the state.

They reportedly agreed such a charter school could be a preferred option for students living in isolated or dangerous neighborhoods, for bullied students, and even for students with unconventional schedules because they are Olympic hopefuls.

On Dec. 16, however, general counsel Paul O’Neill of SUNY’s Charter School Institute told a committee of trustees that the state’s charter law doesn’t allow for internet-based education delivered via home computers. A provision of the law requires the charter school to be in one building. Bennett’s Virtual Charter School, however, would allow students to be educated from their homes or in small clusters statewide.

“This is exactly the sort of option New York families need,” said SUNY Trustee Candace DeRussy. “It’s high time New York move into the 21st century … I believe it’s irresponsible of us to deny New York families this option.”

The League of Women Voters of New York State had argued that the cyber charter school’s application should be rejected. “It cannot meet the needs of certain at-risk populations; it will lead to re-segregation of education in this state; it cannot maintain the separation of church and state,” said Elsie Wager of the league.

“We’re going to follow the law here,” said SUNY Trustee Edward Cox. “The law is the law.”

In Colorado, a dispute erupted on Dec. 16 when the ratings came out on the Branson Alternative School, a virtual school headquartered in Branson, Colo. State officials marked Branson down as one of the worst schools in the state, but angry supporters blame brick-and-mortar rules for artificially depressing the online school’s results.

Branson Alternative, operated from a 1920s schoolhouse in southern Colorado, reportedly earns millions for the otherwise impoverished district. And parents say it renewed their faith in public education after their children, many of whom have special physical or emotional needs, had bad experiences in regular schools.

But in just-released state rankings, Branson Alternative was tagged the worst elementary school, worst middle school, and third-worst high school in Colorado.

Critics say the rankings had more to do with turnout than with measures of school quality.

Like all students in all public schools in Colorado, kids who take courses from the Branson virtual school have to take Colorado Standards of Academic Progress (CSAP) and ACT tests. But last school year, 95 percent of Branson’s students didn’t.

Each of them was averaged in as a zero. Less than zero, actually. The punitive scoring for no-shows was designed to discourage principals from letting weak test-takers take a pass on exam day.

“I don’t oppose the testing,” said Branson Superintendent Alan Aufderheide. “But to put a punitive, coercive thing in like the math they put in, it doesn’t sit well with a number of people—me as well as any number of parents.”

Officials at Branson School started putting coursework online four years ago so the 40 students in the school wouldn’t fall behind on mud days.

“The roads are clay or gravel, and when we get a good rain for a day and a half, it just turns to awful,” Aufderheide said.

The online courses became an internet success story, according to an Associated Press report. The virtual Branson School won recognition from the state Education Department last year as a bona fide public school, and this year it offers a full slate of courses by computer to 520 students, from kindergarten up, statewide.

Families had many reasons for not taking last year’s tests, Aufderheide said. For some, it was inconvenient because distance-learning students have to travel to a testing site to meet a proctor. For others, it was a matter of political conviction.

But at least one legislator says Aufderheide and Branson OnLine parents are wrong to expect special treatment just because their students use keyboards instead of classrooms.

“I’m pretty adamant about the fact that if we’re going to spend public dollars to educate these kids, and we’re going to put them in school districts, then they take the CSAP,” said state Rep. Keith King, R-Colorado Springs.

Aufderheide said the school is pushing for online testing—but state officials said that for now, only pencil-and-paper tests will be administered.

See these related links:

SUNY Board of Trustees http://www.suny.edu/Board_of_Trustees/ board_of_trustees.html

K12 Inc. http://www.k12.com

Branson OnLine http://www.bransonschoolonline.com