“Most changes in the ways schools operate can be
thought of as tools,” write Gene Glass, Kevin Welner, and Justin Bathon
in their
recent policy brief. “Used well, such tools can be beneficial; used
they can be harmful.” Agreed. The problem is that these authors seem
convinced of
online learning’s malevolence. Their evidence is the presence of
for-profits in
the digital-ed sector. Behind the proliferation of online
charters—the authors see corporate interests determined to squeeze
dollars out
of a poorly regulated yet potentially vast market with few consumer
protections. Private companies, they charge, will reap fortunes by
offering inferior products at inflated prices, enabled by cozy
relationships with
lawmakers. Further, they assert, research on the effects of digital
learning is
minimal, arguing that this “evidentiary void” is reason enough to slow
expansion of online-ed programs. (As if any innovation came with an
issued-in-advance “proof of quality” guarantee!) The conclusion is thus
In all but the most limited and tightly regulated forms, digital
schooling will
only wreak havoc on the American education system. For those with even a modicum of faith in
school choice and the free market, theirs is an exasperating argument—which is
why the general reasonableness of Glass’s, Welner’s, and Bathon’s policy proposals
is so surprising. They recommend that states: authenticate student work,
accredit online schools, audit their finances, and regulate aspects of
instruction and function. OK! Of course digital learning could go off the
tracks without thoughtful oversight and planning; advocates would be wise to
lead the charge for rational (yet minimal) regulation before the fear mongering
of digital learning’s critics gains traction.

Gene V. Glass, Kevin Welner, and Justin Bathon, Online K-12
Schooling in the U.S.: Uncertain Private Venture in Need of Public Regulation

(Boulder, CO: National Education Policy Center, October 2011).

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