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"Cyber" charters: getting the incentives wrong

MIPFS believes that SB 619 will open the doors to an unwise, unregulated, explosion of online charter schools. We sent this letter to all members of the House Education Committee:

Dear Representative,

On behalf of concerned parents across Michigan, we wanted to reach out to you directly as the House Education Committee approaches a vote on Senate Bill 619, removing limits on “cyber” charter schools.

We have offered testimony on this issue, and I hope you have had a chance to review the concerns prompted by other states’ experience with these entirely online K-12 schools. All those stories of poor performance and financial improprieties really boil down to one central issue, in our view.

As governments and businesses around the globe work to improve their performance, we hear one topic again and again: the need to “get the incentives right.” While we don’t believe that incentives determine everything, they are clearly a powerful force which can help, or hinder, an organization’s mission.

It is because of concerns about incentives that we have consistently argued against for-profit entities providing instructional services in any public school context. Likewise, we have called on policy makers to look beyond standardized tests as a way of evaluating teachers, administrators and schools, because of the perverse incentives a singular focus on test scores can have in any school or district.

As currently constructed, “cyber” schools in Michigan seem doomed to suffer from both kinds of poor incentives. The fact that virtual schools do not have real classrooms, and the opportunities for oversight they provide, requires us to be more diligent and thorough in evaluating these schools — not less. With limited opportunity to evaluate teacher and administrator practice, test scores are likely to become the only metric of success, even though we know such scores give a very limited (and sometimes inaccurate) picture. With no sure way to measure student to teacher ratios, operators will be continually tempted to cut instructional staff to reduce costs. Since for-profit entities have a primary duty to their shareholders, we cannot afford to simply hope that they will put the interests of children first. Families are often in a poor position to judge these matters; they count on our laws to protect their children’s interests.

As testimony before the committee confirmed, online schools depend heavily on “learning coaches” at home, who are usually parents or other interested adults. With families picking up such a large share of the teaching responsibilities, is it wise to offer cyber school operators the same per pupil allowance as a physical school might receive? Without physical limits to enrollment, are there sufficient incentives for online school operators to limit growth and student-teacher ratios in order to ensure adequate instruction and support for their students?

Online education has great promise, but there are many questions yet to be answered about how to teach online effectively, which students are most likely to benefit from this kind of schooling, and what level of funding these schools require. No one has extensive experience with this mode of education or how it works (or fails to work) in the long run, yet we are considering spending a considerable share of scare education dollars on such a system. Michigan should answer some basic questions, and insure that the proper incentives are in place, before removing all limits on this virtual education experiment.

Please vote to set aside this bill and enforce the provisions in current law to thoroughly evaluate our state’s pilot project in online schooling.

Thank you for your consideration.


Steven J. Norton
Executive Director

Michigan Parents for Schools is a non-profit, public interest advocacy organization working to ensure that our public schools have the tools and resources to provide an excellent education to all our children. Part of that mission is to encourage careful and informed structural changes to Michigan public schools, so that every child can receive a quality education — regardless of where they live or the resources that may be available to their family.

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