The COVID-19 pandemic has turned parents’ attention to distance learning for next fall. According to a recent USA Today/Ipsos poll, if K-12 schools reopen in the fall with social distancing but no vaccine, more than half (59%) of people with school-age children will likely pursue at-home learning, including distance learning.

In February, I called the staff responsible for administering the “distance education” program in my school district, the Anne Arundel County Public Schools. The AACPS program offered state-approved online courses provided by independent vendors, and I wanted to know how it worked.

Alas, I had embarked on a fool’s errand. Even though AACPS wouldn’t close its schools until March 16, by mid-February, its staff already knew that the quality of its online courses was a sensitive political issue. For such issues, AACPS administrators forward information requests to the school district’s public information officer.

Thus, I wouldn’t be allowed to talk directly to the staff responsible for administering online courses. Instead, I’d have to make formal requests to someone who’s paid to provide a positive spin on AACPS activities.

So, beginning in late February, I filed a series of Maryland Public Information Act requests with the public information officer. After many weeks passed without my receiving the requested information, I sought the information from the Maryland State Department of Education, or the MSDE, during the first week of April.

The department was as unresponsive as my local school district. It failed to respond to my request during the 10- and 30-day deadlines mandated by Maryland’s Public Information Act. Then, after I filed a complaint with Maryland’s Public Information Act ombudsman, the MSDE claimed it was exempt from providing the information because of a COVID-19-related order from Maryland’s governor. After the claimed exemption was shown to be invalid, the department continued to drag its feet.

Despite these obstacles, I was able to piece together some basic facts about how AACPS, following state guidance, had been implementing online courses. First, only a tiny fraction of its students took even a single online course per semester (about 1 in 500). Second, online courses cost far less than brick-and-mortar courses (about one-fifth as much). Third, students were permitted to take online courses only when the courses both didn’t compete with a member of the local teachers union (e.g., when a student was pregnant and couldn’t attend school) and met important institutional needs (e.g., increasing graduation rates through remediation while saving the district money). Finally, the process for determining whether an online course in a particular situation competes with a teacher was opaque and left largely to local administrators’ discretion.

For online courses purchased from independent course providers, implementation practices didn’t materially change during the spring shutdown. But will those practices continue next fall?

In this new era of distance learning, Maryland families should be asking their elected representatives a few important questions.

For example, why can’t our children take high-quality online courses from the best course providers and teachers, provided they don’t cost more than an in-house online course?

Is it in the students’ interest for the MSDE and local districts to focus narrowly on protecting in-house, unionized staff from online course competition?

Why does the MSDE do such a lousy job of vetting independent online courses — for example, only approving cheap courses that free up resources for other purposes?

Why doesn’t the MSDE both gather and make available to families performance data concerning its approved online courses?

Why have the MSDE and local districts been able to get away with such secrecy regarding the performance of their online courses?

The wealthy don’t have to ask these questions because their children will be able to withdraw from public schools and enroll in the best online courses and virtual schools. These questions are for the underprivileged, who lack such options.

Maryland politicians know the extreme political sensitivity of such questions, as they perceive such questions to step on immensely powerful toes. But Maryland families should demand no less than an honest and robust public discussion of them. The quality of distance learning during the current pandemic is too important to allow our politicians to sweep these vital questions under the rug.

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J.H. Snider, president of iSolon.org, often writes about K-12 education policy and politics.

Source: The illegal cover-up of Maryland’s anti-choice distance-learning policies, Washington Examiner, June 17, 2020.

Related recent writings:

Related earlier writings:

Snider, J.H., Education wars: the battle over information-age technology, The Futurist, May-June, 1996, Vol. 30 Issue 3, pp. 24-28. Republished in Hirschbuhl, John, and John Kelley. Computers in Education, 9/e. McGraw-Hill, Inc., 1999., and Noll, James Wm, ed. Taking sides: Clashing views on educational issues. McGraw-Hill/Dushkin, 199X. Some old and new cites: National Academy of Sciences. “The Information Revolution Will Transform Education.” In Opposing Viewpoints: The Information Revolution. Ed. Paul A. Winters. San Diego: Greenhaven Press, 1998. Opposing Viewpoints Resource Center. Gale. Apollo Library. 7 Dec. 2008; Pell, Beverly, At Home with Technology: Home Educators’ Perspectives on Teaching with Technology, dissertation, 2018.

Snider, J.H., “Education technology clashes with teachers,” USA Today, May 15, 1996, p. 11A.

Snider, J.H., Should School Choice Come Via the Internet?Education Week, January 9, 2002.