Why Betsy DeVos Supports Virtual Charter Schools

By Cait Etherington October 25, 2017

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Betsy DeVos continues to make it widely known that she support online education, including virtual K-12 schools. On the one hand, DeVos’s support for K-12 virtual schools has been welcome. On the other hand, DeVos’s endorsement has prompted some Americans, especially those opposed to the current administration’s educational mandate, to raise new questions about virtual schools and their regulation. What the DeVos position on K-12 virtual schools ultimately reveals, however, is that the virtual school discussion may be far more complex than many people assume.

Unpacking DeVos’s Support for Virtual Schools

The debate over virtual schools heated up again earlier this month when DeVos released a new report outlining her department’s current priorities on education. According to the Secretary’s Proposed Supplemental Priorities and Definitions for Discretionary Grant Programs, “The Secretary proposes 11 priorities and related definitions for use in discretionary grant programs to reflect the Secretary’s vision for American education. Specifically, the priorities are designed to encourage grantees to empower parents and educators; reduce red tape; utilize and build evidence of what works; and, most importantly, take strides toward ensuring equal access to the high-quality, affordable education every American student deserves in an educational environment that is safe and respectful of all viewpoints and backgrounds.”

Despite multiple news headlines pointing to DeVos’s support for virtual schools, only three sections of the report explicitly or implicitly lend support to virtual schools and eLearning:

  • Proposed Priority 3—Fostering Flexible and Affordable Paths to Obtaining Knowledge and Skills: Under this priority, DeVos gives a strong endorsement for competency-based learning (an approach already being used at some online institutions, such as Western Governors University, as well as at many online coding bootcamps). As outlined in the document, “Competency-based learning is one possible approach to improve student outcomes and prepare students for careers. Under this approach, instead of equating seat time with learning—assuming all students need the same amount of time to learn material—students can work at their own pace and progress as they demonstrate mastery of content.”
  • Proposed Priority 6—Promoting Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math (STEM) Education, With a Particular Focus on Computer Science: Under this priority, DeVos specifically mentions the role of online learning, noting that “Increasing access to STEM coursework, including computer science…and hands-on learning opportunities, such as through expanded course offerings, dual-enrollment, or other innovative delivery mechanisms including high-quality online coursework” must be prioritized.
  • Proposed Priority 11—Ensuring that Service Members, Veterans, and Their Families Have Access to High-Quality Educational Choices:  Under this priority, DeVos emphasizes,  that educational choice means “the opportunity for a student (or a family member on their behalf) to create a personalized path for learning that is consistent with applicable Federal, State, and local laws, is in an educational setting that best meets the student’s needs, and, where possible, incorporates evidence-based activities, strategies, and interventions.” She mentions “public online education providers” and “private online providers” as part of the choice that must be made available to parents.

What DeVos’s report makes clear is that the current administration is open to public and private online schools, competency-based learning (which is frequently connected to online education), and considers online education a vital part of growing a STEM mandate. If opponents are worried, however, the real issue doesn’t appear to be DeVos’s support for online learning or virtual schools but rather her specific support for private and for-profit online schools and support for competency-based education.

The critique of the private and for-profit schools is not a surprise. Public education is naturally pitted against private and for-profit education. Competency-based education, however, raises an entirely new set of concerns. Indeed, as the current charges against Western Governors University reveal, what’s at stake is the entire definition of an educator. After all, if, as DeVos notes “instead of equating seat time with learning—assuming all students need the same amount of time to learn material—students can work at their own pace and progress as they demonstrate mastery of content,” then there is in fact good reason to question whether educators will be needed to fill the roles they currently fill in the education system moving forward. At stake here is a question of labor and even, one might speculate, a question concerning the future of the teaching profession.

Share Your Views with Secretary DeVos

If you have something to say to Secretary DeVos, now is the time. Americans are invited to submit their formal comments on Secretary DeVos’s proposed priorities for education through the Federal eRulemaking Portal or via postal mail, commercial delivery, or hand delivery until November 13. Details on how to respond to DeVos’s mandate are available on the Federal Register website.

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