By JON GASKELL
Capital News Service
LANSING—Legislation that would lift restrictions on the number of online charter schools that can operate in Michigan will soon come to a vote.
House Education Committee chair Tom McMillin, R-Rochester Hills, said the bill, passed by the Senate last December, will likely be voted out of committee in coming weeks.
“Education is changing and it’s changing rapidly. If we don’t change, the world is not waiting,” McMillin said. “We’ve got to move forward or our kids are going to be left behind.”
The bill—part of a package of legislation aimed at revamping the education system—would eliminate limits on enrollment for online charter schools, currently at 1,000 students. It would also end the present cap of two cyberschools.
Currently, the Michigan Virtual Charter Academy and Michigan Connections Academy are the only authorized online charter schools. Both K-12 programs have been open for a year and a half.
Former state schools Superintendent Tom Watkins told the committee he favors the measure, saying the state needs to take “bold, courageous, creative and innovative” action to compete globally.
Committee Democrats, however, argued that not enough is known about the performance of the existing cyberschools and that lifting the cap could open the door to less-qualified vendors.
“Why wouldn’t we wait at least until we get the report on these two schools that we just opened to see how they’re performing?” asked Rep. Lisa Brown, D-West Bloomfield.
Donald Wotruba, deputy director of the Michigan Association of School Boards, said he would like to see more online education offerings but legislators should wait for data on student retention rates and how cyberschools affect state funding for traditional schools.
And Rep. Rudy Hobbs, D-Lathrup Village, said the committee should establish criteria for cyberschool contractors before passing such legislation, rather than dealing with ineffective schools later.
“If we open this window, anyone can come in there,” Hobbs said. “We don’t want everyone, we want good operators.”
Jerry Johnson, executive director of communications and development at the Genesee Intermediate School District, said allowing more private vendors to operate without regulations poses an unnecessary risk, since public schools already work with private companies to provide online course options.
“If you allow unlimited charters, unlimited students, then any vendor could essentially petition for their own charter school,” Johnson said, “Why would an entrepreneur hold themselves accountable to limitations that would not be in their best interest, from a money-making point of view?”
The bill “presents the potential to Wal-Mart public education,” Johnson said “As written, this bill serves the interests of private, for-profit entities, not those of students.”
Johnson urged the committee to reevaluate the proposal to put in safeguards and best practices, including aligning online curriculum with state standards, ensuring teacher engagement with classes and pre-screening students for suitability with online programs.
But for many families, the wait to enroll their students in cyberschools is already too long.
Steve Slifko recently returned to Commerce Township after 13 years in Florida to help with the education of his special needs grandson.
Slifko said the Michigan Virtual Charter Academy helped save his grandson’s life.
“Our grandson, 14 months ago, was diagnosed as cognitively impaired,” Slifko said. “After thousands of dollars for therapeutic services and no progress in a brick-and-mortar school. We finally found a solution that is working.”
Slifko said the cyberschools’ technology and tailored learning environment helped his grandson catch up with peers and develop an “insatiable” love for learning.
“One of the things I’ve heard here all morning is ‘What’s the rush? What’s the rush?’ In 14 months, it has already proven it can save a life.” Slifko said. “The opportunity to learn, to read and write and express oneself at an age-appropriate time was quickly vanishing before our eyes and we felt hopelessness.
“It’s impossible to give what this child is getting in a brick-and-mortar school,” he said.
© 2012, Capital News Service, Michigan State University School of Journalism. Nonmembers cannot reproduce CNS articles without written permission.
By JON GASKELL