Fairness is among the first lessons we teach our children. Wait your turn, share your toys, obey the rules. So why is this value absent when it comes to funding children’s public education? I can’t fully answer that question. Neither can the thousands of parents like me whose children attend Arizona’s virtual public charter schools. Though our children are public school students under Arizona state law, they receive only a portion of standard public school funding.
Don’t get me wrong; Arizona virtual education – and the policies that dictate it – has come a long way. Our online academies fall under the charter school program approved by the Arizona Legislature in 1994.
Title 15-808 of Arizona Revised Statues acknowledges the value of virtual charter schools specifically in offering academic choices for Arizona’s students in the digital age.
Since these programs began, students who once struggled in traditional desk-lined, chalkboard-centered classrooms have begun to thrive.
Gifted and special needs children alike now take the opportunity to learn at their own pace. Students with health concerns or physical challenges now learn without the usual complications. Online learning also gives students the chance to learn unfettered by social disruptions – bullying, for instance.
Virtual public schools introduced the opportunity to individualize students’ learning experience, and students responded by embracing online learning in growing numbers. Today, more than 40 online schools and programs are approved and serving approximately 20,000 Arizona students. We have dedicated parents, motivated teachers, and the support of state legislators such as House Speaker Andy Tobin, Rep. Doris Goodale, Rep. Heather Carter and Sen. Kimberly Yee to thank for this success.
Pundits will argue that virtual schools’ success reflects watered-down requirements and reduced school accountability. Their claim is unfounded. Virtual schools demand the same level of commitment and performance that traditional schools do. They take attendance; they assign homework; they administer tests. Likewise, they are accountable to state and national standards. The teachers who instruct students are state-certified, degree-holding professionals, just like those at traditional public schools.
With equal accountability and equal instruction, Arizona’s virtual schools should receive equal funding. But they don’t. In 2008, Arizona was poised for budget cuts at the expense of students’ online education. Parents like me rallied together, and the cuts were avoided. Yet funding for a full-time Arizona student at a public online charter school can be 15 percent to 20 percent less than for a student at a traditional public school.
Discriminating against certain types of public schools is just plain wrong. My child and the other students throughout our state who excel because of virtual schools deserve better, and all public schools deserve full and equal funding.
We hope policymakers will listen.
Though the choice between traditional and online schooling is a decidedly 21st century decision, what we parents want for Arizona students is downright old-fashioned. Our kids, all of them, deserve a successful, fully funded education – fair and square.
— Ann Robinson is president of Arizona Parents for Education. She lives in Flagstaff with her daughter, who attends an Arizona virtual school.