The Universal Notebook: Are virtual schools real schools?

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Gov. Paul LePage’s default pick for Commissioner of Education is Steve Bowen, a former Maine Heritage Policy Center policy wonk who took the job after more-qualified individuals turned the job down, a problem the governor has been having all over his cabinet.

Bowen is a former school teacher, but he has no administrative experience, let alone experience implementing educational change. What he has is an opinion, a conservative opinion naturally, and, he possesses the quality Gov. LePage values above all else – loyalty. He can be counted on to toe the LePage party line.

What we seem to be getting in LePage cabinet picks are conservative loyalists who are generally opposed to the missions of the departments they have been asked to head. We’ve got a governor who is opposed to government, a conservation commissioner who is opposed to conservation, an environmental protection commissioner who is opposed to environmental protection, a health and human services commissioner who is opposed to human services, and now we have an education commissioner who is opposed to the current Maine public education system.

Maine is one of the few states left in the nation that does not allow charter schools, but Steve Bowen is all about charter schools. More to the point, he is all about virtual charter schools. Just imagine all the tax dollars we can save if we don’t bother building real schools, we just put the curriculum online and let the kids learn at home.

“As a new governor and new Legislature take power in Augusta, this is the perfect time for such an effort to be undertaken here in Maine,” Bowen wrote in his Jan. 4  “Schools for Maine’s Future: The Promise of Digital Learning.”  “Governor-Elect LePage, upon assuming office, should make the advancement of comprehensive digital learning policies a top priority.”

“Maine’s schools face a number of challenges in the years ahead, but digital learning holds the promise of improving student outcomes at a time of declining school funding and plunging student enrollment. The time has come for a major digital learning initiative, led by Maine’s next governor. With the right policies in place, Maine could ensure that all of its students have access to the digital learning programs they need to assure their success in school and beyond.”

Bowen then goes on to tout the virtues of the Virtual Learning Academy Charter School in New Hampshire as a model of what he foresees for Maine. The N.H. school serves some 7,000 high school kids with an online curriculum borrowed from the Florida Virtual School.

The Florida Virtual School, however, was not established to improve public education. It was launched to enable school districts to get around Florida’s 2002 Class Size Reduction Amendment that stipulated that core high school classes, such as math and English, cannot be larger than 25 students. But you can jam 45 or 445 students into a virtual classroom without violating the letter of the Florida class size law, just its spirit and intent.

Worse, Florida students often found themselves assigned to virtual classes without their or their parents’ prior knowledge.

In an ideal world, education should take place face-to-face in one-on-one situations. Class size matters. Smaller classes are better than large classes. That’s what you get when you send your child to private school – smaller classes, better student-teacher ratios, more individual attention. Bowen believes, however, that online virtual classes will be a boon to teachers “because such programs take over much of the work of direct instruction (and) teachers are freed to work one-on-one with students needing additional help.”

If Bowen has his way, my guess is that lots of students are going to need additional help – figuring out what the heck happened to their education.

The idea of turning core instruction over to canned computer curricula may make sense if a student is unable to attend a traditional school for some reason, but it should never, ever be the primary option. Distance learning works best for highly specialized knowledge and skills, not for the basics. It’s fine to teach surgeons a new technique, but not to teach high school biology.

So just remember, assuming he is confirmed, when commissioner Bowen says “education reform” he means “charter schools.” And when he says “digital learning” he means “virtual schools,” not real schools. But digital learning appeals to core conservative values. It’s cheap. It’s easy. And you can make a buck off it.

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Freelance journalist Edgar Allen Beem lives in Yarmouth. The Universal Notebook is his personal, weekly look at the world around him.