California fails at giving kids a quality high-tech education

California’s new superintendent of public instruction is Tom Torlakson, whose election locks in a status quo that short-circuits California students on high-tech delivery of educational services.

Countries such as Indonesia, Mexico, Singapore, Turkey, India and China, along with the European Union, are taking full advantage of online education. California, home to Silicon Valley and major high-tech companies, lags far behind. One of the major reasons is opposition from teacher unions.

It will soon be 2011, but these unions still operate under a 19th-century industrial model completely unsuitable for education. More technology means better efficiency, which means fewer workers are necessary to perform the same job. So unions fight to block technological innovation.

Online learning has the potential to displace the role of the traditional teacher at the head of the brick-and-mortar classroom, and can allow for higher student-teacher ratios. Unions’ model contracts say, “No employee shall be displaced because of distance learning or other technology” and that teachers must consent to teaching courses using distance technology, and may not be required to teach such courses.

Unions have attacked online education as low quality and expensive, which is not true. The education establishment has geared online courses for the benefit of teachers and bureaucrats, not students and parents.

California mandates a 25-to-1 student-teacher ratio for virtual charter schools. Students may attend only those located in the county in which they live, or a contiguous county. All teachers must have California credentials, which blocks students’ access to high-performing teachers from other states. Also, the state limits funding for virtual charter schools to 70 percent of the funding traditional schools receive.

Thus, government red tape and union opposition combine to limit a dynamic medium that should be opening new horizons for all students. Online education is not a panacea, and not for everyone, but experience confirms it can help improve student achievement.

San Jose’s Rocketship Mateo Sheedy charter school, for example, uses a part traditional classroom part online learning “hybrid” model. The school’s mainly low-income Hispanic students post higher scores on the state math exam than their peers in neighboring wealthy suburbs. Rocketship saves a half-million dollars a year because of reduced need for credentialed teachers.

Teachers at California Virtual Academy charter schools interact with students through counseling sessions, face-to-face meetings and an advanced learning management center they use to monitor students’ progress. Like Rocketship, the academy confirms that online learning can be very effective for students with special needs, and those from immigrant backgrounds.

With California’s education establishment, the key question is how to limit online education in ways that please powerful unions. And their preferred candidate, Torlakson, is now state superintendent.

Like previous superintendents, he will give the unions everything they want, whatever the effect on students. Little will change until parents and students can choose the schools they believe best meet their needs, as a matter of basic civil rights.

K. Lloyd Billingsley is editorial director of the Pacific Research Institute, publisher of the forthcoming “Short-Circuited: The Challenges Facing the Online Learning Revolution in California.”

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