Online school won't cure all the ills of public education
Saturday, March 17, 2012
Beth Cody, Writers’ Group member
Iowa City Press-Citizen

There has been worry about the online schools that will begin operating in Iowa next year. The Iowa Attorney General has ruled that online education is legal in Iowa, and Connections Academy and K12, both out-of-state virtual academies, will partner with CAM and Clayton Ridge school districts to allow Iowa students to attend classes online from home.

Online learning is clearly the way of the future, particularly for rural students, of which Iowa has many. And as a home schooling parent, I obviously see a great advantage to learning at home.

But, as much as I regret criticizing any plan that de-couples education from the control of teachers’ unions, I must predict that these online academies will prove disappointing to students, parents and taxpayers.

This is because these online schools are not really “privatizing” education. They still rely on government coercion and funding extracted from taxpayers for their business model, and therefore they will still suffer from the underlying disease of government schools.

They are simply different pigs lining up at the same taxpayer money trough. Why would the results be any different?

The online schools are corporations run for profit and staffed by non-government teachers and administrators (all points in their favor). But they are largely protected from competition by their public school contracts and are guaranteed a certain tuition per student.

In real “free markets,” companies must compete with other firms to offer the best services at the best prices. This causes quality to increase and prices to decrease over time. Even such “special” services as education are subject to the laws of the market (despite the claims of many); there are always improvements that can be made when teachers and administrators are motivated to constantly look for them.

But competition is stifled when:
1. Contracts prevent other competitors from setting up shop.
2. Schools are guaranteed a set amount of tuition per student. 
3. Schools are paid for by “Someone Else’s Money.” Yes, we all pay taxes and are sensitive to increases, but parents do not choose schools based on cost and therefore schools have little reason to control cost.
4. Schools are largely guaranteed a certain number of students: parents are already forced to pay for public schools, and are therefore far more likely to use them.

When competition is stifled, schools do not have to constantly innovate to improve quality nor always look out for ways to cut unnecessary costs. This inevitably leads to declining standards and upward-spiraling costs: just what we have in public schools, despite feeble protests to the contrary.

Because public schools have such a firm grip on the market (nearly 90% market share), we don’t even know how much better schools might have been without the coercion of taxpayer funding. Look at technology, the internet and other fields with rapid innovation because of relatively limited government involvement, and then try to imagine what schools might have been without that government control:

  • Would schools be technological wonders, with wireless technology at every seat, or would low-tech
    personal instruction be the way?
  • Would large, consolidated schools like most modern public schools be the norm, or would small decentralized schools with internet connection for specialized courses be the thing?
  • Or would we even need schools any more? Could our children learn at home or at neighboring friends’ homes for a fraction of the cost of public schools, affordable to all?

Who knows? Probably all of these would be tried and adopted; maybe some would prove both more effective and more affordable over time and become widespread.

But we’ll never know. It’s very sad to look at our stagnating public schools, resolutely defended by government employees for their own interests, and imagine what might have been.

However, it’s obvious that these government-approved, government-financed online version of schools will be no panacea for the ills of the repressed education market.