Michigan’s Online Education: Financing Private Interests With Your Tax Dollars

By Dave Palmer

The August 30th edition of the Detroit Free Press featured an article lauding the many changes happening within Michigan’s Public Schools’ online education programs. Many school districts are expanding their online offerings, five new “cyber schools” have appeared, and for the first time in history, students grades 5-12 will be allowed to take up to two classes per semester from another district or the Michigan Virtual University without their district’s permission.

Sounds like a good deal, right? Well, it does, right up until the part where the article informs the reader that the student’s home district will be required to pony up 80% of the cost of the class up front, and the other 20% of the cost upon completion. Yes, you read that right. No matter who (i.e. private interests) or what district is providing the classes, 100% of the cost is incurred by the student’s home school district.

In other words, your tax dollars are being funneled into the pockets of privately owned cyber school vendors.

Not only that, there is no guarantee that the student even needs the class in which they are enrolled thanks to the provision that they need no permission from the home school district. Never mind the fact that each school district has slightly different requirements in terms of electives for graduation. Never mind the fact that the home school district keeps the students’ records and knows which class they need to take in order to take the fastest and cheapest way to graduation. According to Lansing politicians, if a student wants to choose to take Underwater Basketweaving online, they should be able to, and public school districts should have to pay.

Furthermore, the requirement that home school districts pay could cause further financial problems in school districts already strapped for cash. If they are required to pay for classes in other school districts, how are they supposed to finance their own online classes to attract online students from other parts of the state?

From there, it is only a few short steps from a budget deficit to a possible emergency manager, bankruptcy, or state takeover via the Education Achievement Authority. In the latter case, it would actually be a private takeover since the EAA is privately owned, though it is technically managed by the state.

All of these online schools that are sold to parents as “taking control of your student’s education” or “providing more educational choices for parents and students” amount to pretty much the same thing. They are simply another chess move by politicians in keeping with private school lobbyists’ desire to defund public schools to pave the way for a private takeover.

In the meantime, teachers will take the brunt of its effects. Fewer teaching positions will be available, considering that one teacher certified in any subject can monitor a lab of 30-50 students, all of whom are enrolled in different classes. Specialization will no longer be a requisite for becoming a teacher in these cyber schools, as teachers will not be responsible for teaching a specific subject. (Do you want a physical education teacher responsible for helping a Pre-Calculus student?) This will lead to lower teacher pay and will turn a once valued and revered profession into a mere factory position.

To top it all off, the article sings the praises of programs that allow students to take their complete enrollment online, thus completely avoiding a school building. Again, this sounds like a good deal until you consider whether or not the parent is monitoring for cheating (i.e. using Google to look up test answers). Another problem for online education is the fact that there is no way to verify whether or not the person enrolled in the class is the person actually sitting at the computer completing the work. The potential for fraud is virtually endless.

Online education can be functional for credit recovery and in a closely monitored lab environment can provide a useful alternative to brick-and -mortar education. However, it should be limited to students identified as being in need of an alternative type of education, to students who need to recover credits for whatever reason. No student should be allowed to take all of their classes online from home, and a specific effort should be made to make sure that the teacher looking at online work for a specific subject is in fact certified in that subject.

Do not be fooled by the allure of online education. It is advertised to the public as a way to offer options or control a student’s education, but the fact that it is advertised means that it represents the interests of private corporations. The people of Michigan should not be so easily fooled by political rhetoric such as “proving more options for students” or “allowing parents to control their student’s education”, for this rhetoric is directly parroted from the private school lobbyists’ talking points memos. There is little to no accountability for the results of online education, and little research that indicates it provides better results than regular schools. Meanwhile, local school districts will be required to dig even further into their own budgets to finance virtual education from another provider, possibly leading them to bankruptcy and dissolution.

One of the Merriam-Webster definitions of “virtual” is “being on or simulated on a computer or computer network. (emphasis added). Therefore, any “virtual education” can be thought of as a “simulated education.” Simulated, as in: not real.