Virtual School Meanderings

September 5, 2010

Reason Magazine: Teachers Unions vs. Online Education

This came through my Facebook news stream a few days ago.

To follow the link, click on the image or visit

I’m always curious about this us and them attitude that has developed in the education community, and particularly the online education community, when it comes to unions.  Terry Moe and John Chubbs in their book, Liberating Learning: Technology, Politics and the Future of American Education, practically blame teachers unions for all that woes the American education system.  In fact, most cyber charter school advocates point to unions as one of the stumbling blocks that need to be overcome when it come to being innovative in education.  I have to say this confuses me a bit.

If you look at the article Cathy provided the link for it is much the same attitude.  Once we get past the obvious inaccuracies in the article (which begin with the first sentence, “I know a 3-year-old who’s a master of online multitasking.” – see Naveh-Benjamin, Kilb & Fisher (2006), and many others who have studied this myth of the master multitasker), the article is really just a summary of the book Saving Schools: From Horace Mann to Virtual Learning, by Paul Petersen.  And the article has the same political bias that I’ve come to expect from these non-educators who have written on the topic.

For example, on the bottom of the first page – as it discussed the court case brought against K12, Inc. in Wisconsin – the article states:

The conflict exploded in January 2004 with a lawsuit brought by the teachers union and the elected state superintendent. State Sen. John Lehman (D-Racine), who heads his chamber’s education committee, accused private education companies of “profiteering off of kids.”

Now this isn’t quite right.  The court case was based on the fact that the instructional model used by K12, Inc. required that parents/guardians perform an instructional role (and in the case of elementary students, the majority of the instructional role), and the State’s own legislation required that those who were expected to be teachers needed to have a teaching license.  This wasn’t a case of preventing innovation or preventing parents from helping their children with their school work (ad the latter was a often used charge by the cyber charter school proponents).  This was a case about parents expected to be teachers without having a teacher’s license in clear violation of the State’s own law.  This likely came about due to the fact that when the law was originally passed no one envisions full-time K-12 online learning.  You’ll note that once the legislative issues were cleared up, you haven’t heard a lot from Wisconsin in the past five years – yet cyber charter schools are still profiting from public education dollars in Wisconsin, so if that was really the issue don’t you think that the teachers’ unions would have kept up some sort of fight?

The article continues with a section entitled “Unions Fighting Back” and they quote a document from the National Education Association – who they say are taking a hard line against virtual charters, which reads:

There also should be an absolute prohibition against the granting of charters for the purpose of home-schooling, including online charter schools that seek to provide home-schooling over the Internet…

Now if I’m not mistaken, most states refuse to provide public education dollars for students who are homeschooled.  To me, this appears that the NEA is against using public money to provide parents the opportunity to purchase online curriculum for the purpose of homeschooling…  And you know what, the legislation in most states have legislation against it too!  The NEA are simply stating that if all the cyber charter school is doing is providing an opportunity for parents to home school their children, than they shouldn’t receive public funding.  It is no different than a parent going out and purchasing an instructional CD-Rom or even a book.  Homeschooled parents shouldn’t receive public dollars to do that and they shouldn’t receive public dollars to purchase online curriculum from a cyber charter school.  The bar should be set higher – and in many cyber charter schools it is, as most cyber charter schools have an online teacher that is responsible for directing the student’s studies and actually interacting with the student in both a synchronous and asynchronous manner online and through telephone calls (and in some instances in person).  The level of interaction between student and teacher can often be gauged by the student-teacher ratio – those that have a student-teacher ratio more comparable to the traditional brick-and-mortar environment likely have much more interaction than those that use a student-teacher ratio two and three times what you’d see in a traditional school.

Having said all of that, if you look at the last bit of that specific clause in their Statement Adopted by the 2001 Representative Assembly, it reads:

…and lend themselves too easily to the misuse of public funds and the abuse of public trust.

And surprise, surprise, back in 2001 this was exactly what has happening in jurisdictions like Michigan, Ohio and Pennsylvania.  The kind of misuse of public funds and outright corruption lead to a complete ban on cyber charter schools in Michigan that was only lifted this past year under the threat of the Race to the Top funding.  States like Ohio and Pennsylvania still suffer, in terms of their reputation for cyber charter schools, because of those “wild west” days that were occurring at the same time this NEA statement.

The article continues

When 2009 began, the state legislature had already obliged the union by capping enrollment for virtual schools and mandating that kids do work under the eyes of physically present teachers. Yet union support for funding and expanding the state’s Oregon Virtual School District (which has been slow to attract enrollment) remained strong, with union members citing the existence of the government-run academy as sufficient to meet online education needs in the state.

It is interesting that things like a cap on enrollment, which has been used in most states in the past three years that have introduced cyber charter schooling, are blamed on the teachers’ union.  What about a state like Georgia, where there are next to no unions at all, who gets the blame for the enrollment cap for cyber charter schooling in that state?  The same thing with funding, and I’ll used Georgia as an example again…  A good red state, where there is basically no teachers’ union at all and the conservative voice is the dominant public opinion.  The proposed $3200/student for cyber charter school funding in Georgia is among the most restrictive in the United States.  But let’s blame it on the unions because their an easy scapegoat!

In the very next paragraph, the article reads:

Says Dreyer [i.e., Barbara Dreyer, CEO of Connections Academy]: “Many states say, ‘We hate the whole thing with these for-profit providers. We should just do it ourselves.’ But with the exception of FLVS, nobody has been able to do it. It’s complicated; it takes capital. It’s tough to do it from scratch. They don’t have expertise. It’s particularly tough in these times when there is no money.”

The authors of the article, being blinded by their convenient whipping boy, don’t bother to unpack this statement.  Why is it that cyber charter schools and FLVS are the only organizations that are able to provide full-time online learning?  Could it be that both cyber charters and FLVS are the only ones that receive block full-time enrollment (FTE) funding?  FTE funding means that if there are 500 students, the school gets the full FTE for 500 students.  This is generally a figured in the $5,000 to $20,000 range – depending on the state and even the county; and I believe the national average is around $10,000.  You see most state-wide programs, like the one in Oregon, get a block grant from the government and then have to charge school districts a per course fee (usually in the range of $250-$350 per semester-long course).  These state-wide programs can’t handle large scale full-time enrollment because they aren’t funded at a level to do so.  FLVS, which acts as a school district within the Florida system and receives full FTE funding for the students it enrolls, is the only state-wide able to provide that economy of scale because they are being funded at essentially the same levels of traditional brick-and-mortar schools (and the same levels as the cyber charter schools).

There are more and more examples of this bias against teachers’ unions throughout this article, and I won’t beat a dead horse with describing anymore.  A close examination of this article leads me to disagree with Cathy’s assessment that this article is a “comprehensive summary of the state of K-12 online learning in the United States today.”  I’d actually argue that it is a one-sided view of K-12 online learning in the United States today!

And it is a shame because it stems from a fundamental misunderstanding of the role of teachers’ unions.  For some reason, the general public have bought into this belief that the teachers’ unions should be responsible for enacting educational reform.  This should not be the job of a teachers union.  The fundamental goal of a teachers union is to represent the interest of their members.  So the job of teachers unions is to do whatever they can to protect the working conditions of their members and to fight for a better working environment (e.g., pay, class size, workload, etc.).  People often confuse the job that a teachers union does with what its individual members believe about teaching in the classroom – physical or online.  No one faults the auto workers union for fighting for their workers when the company wants to cut wages or benefits or increase hours – that’s their job!  Also, no one blames the individual auto worker for the actions of their union.  No one questions whether that auto worker is heading to the factory tomorrow to make a faulty car because their union is opposing something that company is doing.  Yet in education, we totally misunderstand the role of the union and we fault individual teachers for their union doing what it is supposed to do.

Anyway, that’s enough content for a Sunday morning…  I’ll have more to say about unions and online education later (i.e., in the next couple of weeks), as I draft a message about Teachers Unions and Online Education in Canada.


Naveh-Benjamin, M., Kilb, A., & Fisher, T. (2006). Concurrent task effects on memory encoding and retrieval: Further support for an asymmetry. Memory & Cognition, 34(1), 90–101.


  1. Please keep at this topic,Barbara; it’s a very important issue. I agree that unions aren’t singularly responsible for putting up roadblocks to using better literacy tools (the issue is not with just online education) but they’re not blameless, either. See the discussion happening over at Scott McLeod’s blog

    Comment by Dan McGuire — September 6, 2010 @ 9:04 am | Reply

  2. No, you’re falling into the same trap that most of my colleagues south of the border fall into. They are blameless in this situation because it isn’t their role to fight for or even promote innovation in education. The role of the union is to fight for the best working conditions possible for its members and then fight to uphold any agreements in place.

    To use the auto sector analogy again, it isn’t the role of the UAW to fight for better fuel economy. If the Government were to mandate better fuel economy and the companies tried to implement it on the backs of the workers the union’s job is to fight it. However, if the Government mandated it, and if in the next round of negotiations the companies demanded it (and were willing to lock-out the workers to get it), in the end there isn’t much the UAW can do to stop it.

    To use an education example, the court case against K12, Inc. that is referenced above (and in the article). The union brought the online program to court because its instructional model violated state law (I mean imagine how much better life in a brick-and-mortar school would be if we could expect/demand that much of the instructional duties for educating a child be performed by the parent). Once the law was changed there was nothing for the union to object to – at least legally – and you haven’t heard anything in the media since about the union being a “roadblock” to online learning in Wisconsin.

    Bottom line, people need to remember that the role of the union is to protect its members and nothing more. You want to enact innovation in education, legislate changes and in states where there are union contracts in place just make sure that in the next round of bargaining that the contracts reflect the demands of the legislation. Perceived or imaginary roadblock (and conventient scapegoat) removed!

    Comment by mkbnl — September 6, 2010 @ 9:25 am | Reply

  3. Michael — your point about the funding differences in online learning I think is a very important point. Brick-and-mortar education is pretty much universally funded on an FTE (Full Time Equivalent) model although is might be called ADA (Average Daily Attendance), ADM (Average Daily Membership), or something similar.

    Most full-time online learning is also funded in this model, although there are differences between states on what allows the student to be counted in the model. These differences normally have to do with whether the student must still physically be at a school which can greatly reduce the flexibility of online learning.

    However, for the most part supplemental online learning is funded with a fixed amount of money which as you point out prevents scaling of the program. Florida and a couple of other states are exceptions to this, but if supplemental online learning has any chance to scale, it has to be funded on an FTE basis.

    I do want to note that FTE funding doesn’t mean that online learning is funded at the same level as brick-and-mortar schools. As has been discussed previously a cyber-charter school tends to get 60%-75% of what a brick-and-mortar school receives and the FLVS funding formula is very different from the funding formula for regular school districts, at least partially because Florida only receives funding based on successful completions.

    Certainly there is ongoing debate about what is the appropriate FTE-funding amount for online learning and that debate is likely to continue for quite a while. Independent of agreeing to the funding-level, I hope people can see that FTE-funding is really the only funding approach that makes sense because the costs of educating children both online and face-to-face scale with the number of students.

    Matt Wicks

    Comment by Matthew Wicks — September 7, 2010 @ 2:57 pm | Reply

  4. Matt, just a small clarification. Cyber charter school funding ranges from 60% of FTE funding to 100% of FTE funding. It seems that the majority of states have fallen into the 60% to 75% range, and it also seems that even in jurisdictions where a greater percentage of FTE funding is available that cyber charter schools tend to spend 60% to 75% of the full FTE funding (e.g., the example I’ve given previous of Insight Schools in Wisconsin). Beyond that, I agree with everything you’ve said.

    Comment by mkbnl — September 7, 2010 @ 3:30 pm | Reply

  5. […] Learning Law in America? Really??, Another Example Of The Politics Of Virtual Schooling, and Reason Magazine: Teachers Unions vs. Online Education as recent entries where I have discussed this […]

    Pingback by Where Are Our 95 Theses??? « Virtual School Meanderings — October 31, 2010 @ 3:59 pm | Reply

  6. […] blaming teachers and teachers’ unions.  As I’ve discussed in the past (see Reason Magazine: Teachers Unions vs. Online Education for one of the more recent examples), the us and them attitude that has developed around public […]

    Pingback by Day of National Blogging for Real Education Reform « Virtual School Meanderings — November 22, 2010 @ 4:55 pm | Reply

  7. […] On the second point, those readers familiar with the State of the Nation: K-12 Online Learning in Canada reports that I have written over the past three years will know I regularly point out how the teachers unions in Canada have generally been supportive of K-12 online learning.  They have also regularly worked with Governments to determine ways that ensure these opportunities are available to students, while still protecting the quality of life of online teachers compared to their classroom-based counterparts.  This is a point that I have made several times in this space (most recently in an entry entitled Reason Magazine: Teachers Unions vs. Online Education). […]

    Pingback by Blogging For Real Education Reform – The Sequel « Virtual School Meanderings — December 29, 2010 @ 8:34 am | Reply

  8. […] movement and the politics behind it (and if you’re new to the blog you can read here, here, here and here to get a quick refresher – and that’s just from the last seven […]

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