Virtual Learning Could Be Great for Kids. Will Teachers Unions Let It Happen?

What's to come?
April 9 2013 3:25 PM

Will Teachers Unions Kill Virtual Learning?

New educational technologies could be great for kids—if regulations and politics don’t get in the way.

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Former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, a Republican, has been the most prominent political backer of online education. Bush founded the advocacy group Digital Learning Now with another former governor, Democrat Bob Wise of West Virginia. Despite this bipartisan partnership, in 2011 the liberal Mother Jones gazed across the landscape and spotted Machiavellian GOP politics at work:

“[T]he online-education push is also part of a larger agenda that closely aligns with the GOP's national strategy: It siphons money from public institutions into for-profit companies. … And it undercuts public employees, their unions, and the Democratic base. In the guise of a technocratic policy initiative, it delivers a political trifecta—and a big windfall for Bush's corporate backers.”

That narrative isn’t wrong. The GOP isn’t fond of teachers unions, and undermining their power is certainly a nice bonus. And small-government types, which many Republicans profess to be, would prefer to see public institutions step back when private players can do as well or better. But both sides have ideology and cash at stake. The National Education Association spent $24 million in the 2012 political campaign cycle and another $6 million on lobbying that year. Virtually all of that money went to Democrats, who are well aware the NEA is not welcoming online education companies with open arms. (Exact wording from the NEA’s website: “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.”)

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Online learning faces many of the same obstacles that charter schools do. It also has to overcome the same legitimate concerns about how to assess quality of a product offered by largely untested companies. Skeptics are right to note that many, perhaps most, of the online education providers out there won’t survive the decade—competition is intense, the technologies are new and changing rapidly, and not everyone can be a winner. Someone will be the Pets.com of the ed-tech boom. That prospect is alarming to the traditional school bureaucracy, which tends to make contracts with vendors that span years or decades. They’re not set up to contract with firms offering services for a monthly fee that can be canceled at any time. And parents are rightly concerned about the long-term value of a degree from Pets.edu.

That’s why online education is already making the most headway scooping up kids who are already lost to the system—dropouts who looking to get those last few credits, home-schoolers, kids with disabilities that make normal school attendance difficult, and students whose extraordinary abilities make normal school attendance impossibly boring. People with little to lose are the ripest market right now. Parents demonstrate their willingness to pay for a higher-quality alternative to what’s being offered for free, even parents who are in the most dire circumstances. (See: Kenya, where vast numbers of poor parents pay for private school, despite a universal public schooling entitlement.)

Truly amazing new products have transformative power. And competing with free isn’t impossible. But online education entrepreneurs looking to break into the K–12 market will have to do much more to come up with a product that’s a little better than what’s already out there. They have to come up with something truly new and mind-blowing, because to survive they’re going to have to short-circuit, bypass, or rewire the entire education bureaucracy. Good luck with that.

This article arises from Future Tense, a collaboration among Arizona State University, the New America Foundation, and Slate. Future Tense explores the ways emerging technologies affect society, policy, and culture. To read more, visit the Future Tense blog and the Future Tense home page. You can also follow us on Twitter.

Katherine Mangu-Ward is managing editor of Reason magazine and a Future Tense fellow at the New America Foundation.