The emergency use of online learning encourages the peddlers of privatization

Crises and emergencies bring out the heroic best in people, but, unfortunately, they also bring out the opportunists. Hurricanes and tornadoes often are followed by the price-gougers, overcharging victims for bottles of water, gasoline and other necessities. Now we have the COVID-19 pandemic, and the peddlers of education privatization are circling.

First, we had Education Secretary Betsy DeVos renaming and proposing vouchers in the form of “microgrants.” Now, we have a proposal from the Koch-funded Mercatus Center for lawmakers to allow school districts, in response to the pandemic, to “repurpose taxpayer resources meant for bus routes, food service, and facility maintenance, to name a few, and use this spending to purchase education services from online providers.”

In other words, since thousands of school districts around the country are immersed in virtual learning while buildings are closed during the current emergency, why not keep it up? Or, so this proposal recommends. Stop spending tax dollars on buses and bus drivers, cafeterias and cafeteria workers and maintenance employees and spend it to beef up virtual learning instead. Mercatus also gives a plug to K12 Inc. and Connections Academy, two private virtual providers eager to dig more deeply into state tax dollars.

In its proposal, Mercatus cites regulatory and technical obstacles to virtual schooling. But as the National Education Policy Center (NEPC) points out in it’s analysis, it ignores the limitations of virtual schooling, which many Texas educators and parents are discovering now. NEPS also discusses reasons why policymakers for the long term should never try to replace the teacher in the classroom and the support staff on campus with computers. Reasons such as:

  • The broader purposes of schools, including socialization and nutrition. Those free and reduced-price school lunches are the only meals many school kids get each day.
  • Quality. NEPC cites research on the “consistently and troublingly low” learning outcomes of online schools.
  • Equity. Online schools amplify inequities that worsen the disadvantages of some students, including the many low-income kids who don’t have home computers and Internet access at home.Students with special needs. Virtual schooling is frequently inaccessible to students with special needs and can be an obstacle to their needed access to therapeutic services and their federal right to learn in the least restrictive environment.
  • Fraud, waste and abuse. Education tax dollars are too precious to waste on opportunistic entrepreneurs who often promise more than they deliver.

A computer can be a valuable supplemental education tool, and online learning is a reasonable education alternative during the current emergency, when school buildings are closed to protect public health. But over the long term, computers can’t effectively replace teachers or provide students the important socialization and support services that school campuses do.

Clay Robison

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