Friday, March 14, 2008

Why is union out to kill a good school?

Since the election we have been getting a great deal of new hits to our site. Some have asked why we post information from other states. We post out-of-state information because it is directly applicable to New Hampshire. A common mindset exists among public education apologists throughout the fifty states.

The organizational energy mustered by defenders of the status quo against any perceived threat is no accident. It is the progeny of powerful coalitions intent not on educational excellence, but on self-enrichment at the expense of education reform.

Such groups are easily identified. Listen for the phrase "Its for the kids!", then prepare for the maelstrom of hypocrisy as the subject invariably turns to more money for "the system". The most effective use of tax dollars for education has repeatedly proven to be money that follows the child, not "the system". This proven formula remains unpopular with the education establishment because government school employees would not receive the benefit of these tax dollars.

The piece below appeared in the online version of the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel.

Why is union out to kill a good school?

Posted: Dec. 6, 2007

Patrick McIlheran

"They could learn a lot from our teachers about a new way of teaching," Rose Fernandez told a radio interviewer.

She's a parent at Wisconsin Virtual Academy, the Fredonia-based online public charter school. She was talking about the Wisconsin Education Association Council, the state teachers union whose slogan is, "Every kid deserves a great school."

WEAC, not in a learning mood, had just gotten a court to outlaw Fernandez's kids' great school. About 850 children who attend the school are now left hanging after Wednesday's Wisconsin Court of Appeals decision. The school will stay open while it appeals, but a further loss would endanger every virtual school in the state.

Why would the teachers union try to kill a high-performing public school?

Because, said a written statement from the union, laws written for traditional schools can't be applied to virtual schools. We need new laws to "make them accountable."

Accountable? Such as testing students and reporting results? They do that. The academy's scores on state tests are just dandy - exactly in line with schools in Cross Plains, Mukwonago and Fond du Lac that the academy families I talked to would otherwise use. Ninety-two percent of the academy's students score proficient or advanced in reading.

And if the virtual school doesn't satisfy, parents can put their kids back in the school down the block. Yet it's the virtual school that may get closed. Have you heard of the union suing to close any brick-and-mortar schools that are failing?

All irrelevant, argued the Wisconsin Department of Public Instruction. It sought, with the union, to close the academy. Whether the school successfully teaches is beside the point, said the department's lawyer. Whether it fits the state's regulatory model is what counts. The court agreed.

This makes Wisconsin unique, says Susan Patrick, who heads the North American Council for Online Learning. She used to head educational technology at the U.S. Department of Education. She says to her knowledge, no state has shut down virtual schools over a teacher licensing dispute.

That's the core of WEAC's argument, that because parents help students with lessons that are planned, delivered, tested and evaluated by licensed teachers, the parents are teaching without a license.

About 92,000 students attend 173 virtual schools in 18 states, says Patrick. Nowhere else, she says, have courts ruled virtual schools illegal. "Wisconsin is kind of unique," she says.

Nonetheless, says the court, the law is the law. This is admirably constructionist, though the judges also said laws must be "tempered and clarified" by regulators or the state would be banning everyone's unlicensed parent volunteers and teachers aides. It's fair to ask why regulators then took such an obtuse view on this particular school, arguing parents were such detriments that the whole thing should be closed.

We can guess why WEAC says that. It's because the union isn't interested in making the model work.

The court acknowledged the law could be read as meaning that anyone without a license - such as parents - be kept at arm's length from classrooms. The virtual academy is a paradise of parental involvement. The union aims to shut it down anyhow.

If it succeeds, it will disemploy its own people, since the academy's teachers are dues-paying union members. The union persisted anyhow. It did this because it cannot bear to see success for a kind of schooling in which there's about one teacher for every 42 students, not when WEAC's aim for years has been to see more teachers hired even as enrollments statewide begin to fall.

The union says it wants laws to govern virtual schools. Yet when such a law worked its way through the Legislature last session, WEAC opposed it, eventually tugging on Gov. Jim Doyle's leash to get him to veto it. The law embodied the ideas of a panel of experts that state schools superintendent Elizabeth Burmaster convened. Her agency nevertheless opposed the bill and has apparently offered no guidance on a replacement.

This is the teachers union, and the officials beholden to it, in action. They're torpedoing a good school and, possibly, a whole branch of school innovation. One in five students nationwide will take an online class in college, says Patrick. Michigan now requires all children to take at least one online class. Yet when a school here goes entirely online and spends four years evolving how to do it right, the union's reaction is to spend four years suing to shut it down. How dare WEAC use that slogan?

"Perhaps the legislation simply has not caught up with times and technology," wrote the court. If so, the Legislature needs to change that now. DPI and the union need to get new attitudes. And 850 kids need to know the great school they deserve is going to stay open.

Patrick McIlheran is a Journal Sentinel editorial columnist. His e-mail address is

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