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Virtual Schools and Homeschooling Freedom

Virtual public schools have finally come to Massachusetts, in the form of the Massachusetts Virtual Academy at Greenfield. Since public charter and e-schools began popping up, there has been national concern about whether these new entities will present a threat to homeschool freedoms.

The key point…

The most important point in any discussion of public virtual schools and homeschools is that they are two different things. When a child is enrolled in a public virtual school, that child is a public school student, and must report to the school according to the virtual school's requirements, as well as take state assessment tests, including MCAS. The family is no longer in charge of determining how and when their child is educated. When a child is enrolled in a public virtual school, that family is receiving a curriculum funded by public monies and appropriate accountability for all parties is in play. By contrast, homeschoolers do not accept public monies, are not on the rolls of the public schools, and retain responsibility for and decision-making power over their children's education. Homeschoolers particularly prize this freedom, and retaining the legal right to exercise it is of prominent importance to homeschoolers as well as to the retention of vibrancy and diversity in the palette of educational choices. Clarity about the differences between homeschools and public virtual schools is essential in achieving that objective.

Differences between homeschoolers and virtual school students in Massachusetts

Homeschoolers

Public virtual schoolers

Independent

Public school students

May choose method of education

Must use curriculum provided

Produce their children's evaluations

Must be evaluated by school

Don't take MCAS

Must take MCAS

Don't accept public monies

Accept public monies

The bottom line…

The creation of public virtual schools is attractive to private companies for financial reasons. A school district in Massachusetts creating a virtual school may also be motivated by financial reasons, because that district can receive per pupil funding for any out-of-district students who enroll. Schools in Massachusetts receive no per pupil funding for homeschoolers, but when homeschoolers enroll in virtual public schools and change their status to public school students, the school district in which the virtual school is based gets the funding. Meanwhile, the actual cost to the virtual public school is much lower than for a student who attends the brick-and-mortar building, since the child is at home and only needs minimal equipment, materials, and oversight by teachers.

Virtual schools also provide a way for public schools to draw homeschoolers into the public school system. This has been written about extensively by Patricia Lines in papers and publications including "Support for Home-Based Education." The 2003 booklet is geared specifically toward state policymakers, local boards of education, and school administrators. In it, she makes a case for creating virtual schools as a way of drawing homeschoolers back into the system: "The development of programs for home study offered by public schools will also contribute to the growth of home-based education. However, such offerings may actually reduce the growth of independent homeschooling." (Lines, p. 8).

In other states with public virtual schools, homeschoolers have been targeted as a potential market for enrollment. AHEM supports every family's right to choose how their child will be educated, but in this case it is important that families understand that they are being directly marketed to by the combination of a for-profit entity and a public school district that is seeking to regain funding. Families should assess the option as carefully as they would evaluate any other advertised product. Claims of "free" curriculum and computers, for instance, may have strings attached, in that they may only be on loan for the duration of the child's enrollment. Parents should read carefully between the lines to determine the validity of these advertising claims.

Coexisting…

Virtual school students who were formerly homeschoolers may want to retain that label. However, for the sake of clarity and accuracy, correct language is important. Acceptance of and respect for all educational choices is fundamental to getting along and fostering an environment where diversity in education is seen as a vital and necessary part of our society. Understanding the difference between and maintaining clarity about the ever-changing educational choices available to families in Massachusetts is a key step in protecting those options for all.

We Stand for Homeschooling

Understanding and Improving Full-Time Virtual Schools: A Study of Student Characteristics, School Finance, and School Performance in Schools Operated by K12 Inc. by Gary Miron and Jessica L. Urschel, National Education Policy Center, July 2012.

Special Report: The profit motive behind virtual schools in Maine: Documents expose the flow of money and influence from corporations that stand to profit from state leaders' efforts to expand and deregulate digital education, by Colin Woodard, The Portland Press Herald, September 6, 2012.