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On 26 consecutive screens, K12 Inc.’s online “Romeo & Juliet” lesson helps eighth-graders understand Shakespeare’s prose in today’s language.

After that lesson, the students are directed to read the actual text on their own.

“... Most students find reading Shakespeare difficult at first, but with a little perseverance, the rich language is incredibly rewarding,” directs the online lesson.

To us, this lesson reveals the promise and problem of online-only public education. It prepares students well for the text. But then, they’re effectively on their own.

Online education for students of all ages is here, thankfully, to stay, engaging them interactively and allowing them to proceed at their own pace.

Iowa lawmakers and the Department of Education should be encouraging and funding new ways to adapt this tried-and-true technology in local school districts.

 What lawmakers must stop — this session — is the takeover of Iowa public schools by two new private contractors inadvertently given the entire state as a sales territory. This unintended consequence occurred when two districts’ innovation and the state’s open enrollment law collided in ways educators and lawmakers didn’t expect.

The Iowa Department of Education granted two Iowa public school districts permission to contract with outside, private online education vendors. The Clayton Ridge district in Guttenberg contracted with K12 Inc. The CAM consolidated district around Anita contracted with the Connections Academy.

Both companies offer an entire public school online curriculum that supplants, not just augments, in-school instruction.

And that’s fine for those two districts, where board members vetted the vendors and got state Department of Education approval of the curriculum.

But Iowa’s open enrollment law allows any student in Iowa to sign up through those two districts. And in an instant, every local school district in Iowa is facing competition from a virtually unknown private educator, providing lessons with zero local input or oversight.

Already, 170 families from across Iowa have requested their children to transfer into the CAM district for online-only education. Each child’s enrollment comes with the $5,853 per year in state taxpayer funding. Out of that, CAM’s online vendor will provide a complete education and glean a 3 percent commission. Clayton Ridge’s vendor negotiated a 3.5 percent commission.

Those differences in contracts, commissions, curriculum and instruction design are all matters for each Iowa local school board to consider and resolve. The state Department of Education should assure every outside vendor is capable of meeting Iowa’s core curriculum.

It might certify potential vendors by reviewing each company’s history, financing, recruiting practices, educator background checks, etc. Then each district can decide if this alternative form is appropriate for its students.

 We believe online education not only is appropriate but preferable for some students and some subjects. But parents should expect their local school board members and administrators to actively seek out opportunities to enhance instruction with online alternatives.

Effectively granting two private vendors the entire state as a sales territory short-circuits that process. It presents parents with tough questions about the benefits, drawbacks and promise of online-only public education. When they have those questions, parents no doubt will turn to their local school districts and teachers for answers.

Lawmakers and the Department of Education should act now to help local districts understand and properly manage the introduction of an entirely online alternative.

They must act quickly so that local district educators can properly embrace online alternatives as education enhancements and apply them in ways that best meet local district goals.

Without action now, these two new vendors can only be seen as unregulated, competitive threats at odds with the careful planning and community accountability of our local school boards.

— By the Quad-City Times, like the Globe Gazette a Lee Enterprises newspaper.


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