By Cait Etherington January 23, 2017
So far, few American educators have expressed full support for the appointment of Betsy DeVos as Secretary of Education. Many teachers’ unions fear the newly appointed secretary will not serve as an advocate for public education. Indeed, only days after her announced appointment in late November, the American Federation of Teachers issued a tersely worded response: “In nominating DeVos, Trump makes it loud and clear that his education policy will focus on privatizing, defunding and destroying public education in America. DeVos has no meaningful experience in the classroom or in our schools. The sum total of her involvement has been spending her family’s wealth in an effort to dismantle public education in Michigan.” What the American Federation of Teachers and its members primarily fear is DeVos’s track record of supporting school vouchers. While school vouchers are far from perfect, they may have one silver lining. School vouchers hold the potential to finally give K-12 eLearning a significant and long overdue boost.
School voucher systems essentially give parents the opportunity to go shopping for their child’s K-12 education, even if they can’t afford to send their children to a private school. To date, school voucher systems have already been implemented in more than a dozen U.S. states. Depending on the state, however, the size of the vouchers do vary. Vouchers run anywhere from $500 in Illinois to over $20,000 for special needs students in Oklahoma. On average, school vouchers are $2,000 to $5,000. In most cases, the money flows directly from the government to the school, bypassing parents entirely. Nevertheless, parents are free to use the voucher to pay for some or all of their child’s education.
If a school voucher system is introduced under the new administration, and this seems highly likely given DeVos’s history of promoting such systems, there are at least four potential ways in which K-12 eLearning will get a huge boost.
First, to date, most virtual K-12 schools are set up as charter or private schools. With a voucher system, existing online schools will become accessible to a wider number of parents, including those with limited financial resources. For this reason, the introduction of school vouchers is likely to also result in more online K-12 schools. After all, with a larger market of parents who can afford to consider online learning as an option for their children, starting a virtual elementary or high schools will simply become a safer business opportunity for educational entrepreneurs. A third reason why school vouchers are likely to increase eLearning related to homeschooling.
Many K-12 current children engaged in eLearning are homeschoolers. While some of these children take all their courses online, others take only selected courses online. Either way, it seems likely that with the introduction of school vouchers nationwide, more home schooling parents will begin to take advantage of available K-12 eLearning options. After all, while a $4000 annual voucher may not go very far in the private system, it would open up a wide range of eLearning options. Maggie Stewart, a homeschooling mother from Connecticut, agrees: “I’m homeschooling, because my husband and I just didn’t like any of our local options. That said, I’m not sure that either of us are ready to tutor our son in AP Calculus! So yes, if I had a voucher, I would definitely use it to put him in a high-quality online course, likely in a subject I don’t feel I can cover with him on my own. For this reason, I welcome the introduction of school vouchers.”
The final reason why eLearning may get a boost if school vouchers are implemented reflects the fact that existing public education options may suffer as a result. So far, the Trump government plan appears to entail taking money out of Title I schools (these are schools with a high percentage of students considered to be at-risk of dropping out) and redistributing the money to a new school voucher system. For school boards with many Title I schools, including the New York City DOE, the change would be devastating. Under the plan, the district’s 1265 schools would likely end up with larger class sizes, fewer teachers and cuts to after-school programs. If the numbers go up as money flows from Title I schools to a new voucher system, will parents opt to keep their children in the public system or look for other options? It seems likely that at least some parents will opt to embrace eLearning as a viable K-12 option.
When school voucher programs were first introduced in Wisconsin in 1991, they were designed to help low-income families gain access to better schools and in some respects, the experiment worked. Of course, other people had different reasons for implementing voucher systems, and over time, this has made the system highly controversial. For example, with vouchers, a family can effectively use public funds to pay for their child’s religious school education whether or not the education supports the secular values of the public education system. And this is only one of the reasons school vouchers remain controversial.
While advocates argue that vouchers are fair because they ensure parents no longer have to pay for school twice (e.g., through their taxes and in tuition), critics maintain that with vouchers, some of the fundamental principals of public education, including desegregation, are undermined. In a January 2017 press release, United Federation of Teachers President Michale Mulgrew stated, “The damage would spread through the system, raising class sizes even in non-Title I schools, threatening academic enrichment programs, guidance, art and music and other services our children depend on.”
Despite the critics and the skeptics, there is no question that K-12 eLearning continues to lag behind eLearning at the postsecondary level. Like it or not, school vouchers, which are likely about to be implemented across the United States, hold the potential to diversify educational options at the K-12 level and as a result, to create new resources and a new market for eLearning.