Law Banning Cyber Charter Schools May Be Harming Education in Rural Tennessee

Law Banning Cyber Charter Schools May Be Harming Education in Rural Tennessee
January 1, 2006

A report released by the Tennessee Center for Policy Research on October 31 suggests the state's three-year-old charter school law, which expressly prohibits the authorization of cyber charters, may be preventing thousands of rural students from improving their education.

"Cyber Charters in the Volunteer State: Education Options for Tennessee's Forgotten," by Shaka L.A. Mitchell, a scholar at the center, explains how utilizing technology to implement cyber charter schools could mean significant educational improvement opportunities for states with large rural populations.

"I was really hoping to show that school choice is not just for kids who live in urban areas," Mitchell explained. "So often we get focused in on helping kids in the inner city, and we need to remember that school choice is an issue that impacts all children."



Rural Development Opportunities

According to the report, more than a quarter of Tennessee's population is considered rural by the U.S. Census Bureau. Only 11 percent of the adults living in rural Tennessee areas have graduated from college, compared to 23 percent of those living in urban areas. Changing the Tennessee Public Charter Schools Act of 2002 to allow the creation of cyber charter schools is one way to help ensure children in rural areas of the state can receive the highest quality education possible, Mitchell writes.

"Tennessee's state government spends hundreds of millions of dollars on economic development in rural communities--only to hear from companies that these areas have an underqualified workforce," said Drew Johnson, president of the Tennessee Center for Policy Research. "Cyber charter schools allow rural students the opportunity to get an education on par with the best schools in the state, giving these rural counties a chance to attract business and compete for jobs."

When asked why Tennessee's charter law prohibited cyber charters, state Sen. Jamie Woodson (R-Knoxville), who chairs the State Senate Education Committee, explained, "In 2002, when the charter law was first passed, the idea of cyber charters received a lot of opposition from some members of the legislature and could have led to the bill not passing."



Cyber Charters

According to Mitchell's report, cyber charter schools are publicly funded schools open to any student. The schools cannot discriminate with respect to whom they teach or hire, and teachers must follow the same certification standards as those in brick-and-mortar schools. Typically, cyber charter schools also provide each student with a computer and modem, greatly reducing potential costs to the families.

The main difference between cyber charter schools and brick-and-mortar charter schools is the delivery system. A typical schoolhouse is limited in the number of students it can enroll and the hours it can operate. A cyber charter school, by contrast, can be accessed at any time, from any place. Most cyber charter school teachers are always "on call" to assist students.

The Center for Education Reform, a Washington, DC-based group promoting charter schools, estimates that during the 2005-06 school year, more than 31,000 students across the country are being taught through 81 cyber charter schools. Cyber charter schools exist in 17 states, and their reach is expected to grow.



Tennessee's Future

One of the most important qualities of cyber charter schools, according to Mitchell's report, is that like all charter schools, they are accountable to parents and students. Unlike most traditional public schools, if a charter school fails to show success, it will be closed.

The good news, Woodson said, is that charter schools are performing well in Tennessee in general, and virtual education in every area is going to be a hot topic in the coming legislative session.

"We are going to take this one step at a time," Woodson said. "Now that we know charters are performing well, I am cautiously optimistic that getting cyber charters added into our law will be on the table this coming legislative session."

"I've spoken to several state legislators," Mitchell said, "and several have expressed interest in sponsoring legislation this coming year to address this problem."



Necessary Protections

While it would take a relatively simple language change to allow cyber charter schools in Tennessee, Mitchell cautions in his report that legislators must craft language that would prevent school systems from abusing the financial benefits of cyber charters, while respecting and protecting parents' rights to homeschool their children.

Where cyber charter schools cost less than what the typical public school spends per pupil, every effort must be made to prevent the local education authority (LEA) from pushing students toward cyber charter schools for financial gain, Mitchell writes. Any law must prevent LEAs from turning a profit when a student leaves traditional schooling for a cyber charter school. Mitchell recommends placing those savings in a fund to offset future budget increases, thus saving tax dollars.

In addition, any cyber charter law must ensure homeschooled students remain exempt from the mandatory state testing that would be required of a public cyber charter student, Mitchell writes. The law also should prohibit local government use of cyber charters to take homeschooled students back into the public education system in an attempt to generate school funding.



Logical Next Step

Those caveats aside, Woodson said adding cyber charter schools to the mix is the logical next step for the Volunteer State.

"Any way we can help meet a child's educational needs," she said, "whether through implementing new technology in our traditional public schools or allowing students and families the option of trying cyber charter schools, must be explored."


Andrew T. LeFevre (alefevre@paschoolchoice.org) is executive director of the REACH Alliance and REACH Foundation in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania.


For more information ...

"Cyber Charters in the Volunteer State: Education Options for Tennessee's Forgotten," by Shaka L. A. Mitchell, is available online at http://www.tennesseepolicy.org/files/pdfs/PB05_05.pdf.

Nearly three dozen documents addressing distance education and online learning, including the Mitchell report, are available through PolicyBot™, The Heartland Institute's free online research database. Point your Web browser to http://www.heartland.org, click on the PolicyBot™ button, and choose the topic/subtopic combination Education/Distance Learning.