A news service for the people of Michigan from the Mackinac Center for Public Policy

The State House passed legislation Thursday to allow an increase in the number of Michigan cyber schools.

A cyber school, also called a virtual school, is an educational institution that provides instruction by way of the Internet. Currently there are two cyber schools operating in Michigan that are accepted as being part of the state's school system.

Eight Republican representatives voted against the bill (Senate Bill 619), which passed 56-54. Republicans voting against the expansion were Reps. Jeff Farrington, R-Utica; Anthony Forlini, R-Harrison Twp.; Ben Glardon, R-Owosso; Ken Goike, R-Roy Township; Ken Horn, R-Frankenmuth; Joel Johnson, R-Clare; Paul Muxlow, R-Brown City, and Peter Pettalia, R-Preque Isle.

One House Democrat, Rep. Shanelle Jackson, D-Detroit, voted for the legislation.

In December, Rep. Jackson was the only House Democrat to vote in favor of lifting the cap on the number of charter schools in Michigan.

“What this legislation does for me; is give people - working class people – more choices,” she said during the House floor debate. Can this legislation, like almost all the legislation that we deal with here be improved? Yes, and we can work on it, and we can improve it in the future.”

Rep. Jackson talked about the differences between her brother - who ended up going to a charter school - and herself, who went to a traditional school.

“I did fine in a traditional public school,” she said. “ But what we should recognize is that all of our students are not the same. Parents need to be provided with more opportunities. Today, what I believe we are doing is putting more options on the table.”

Rep. Joel Johnson had the following explanation for his opposition to the bill.

"A big part of success in life is learning how to show up," Johnson said.  "We need our children to learn how to show up - part of that principle is that they show up at a brick and mortar school.  In the case of students with ongoing health challenges or a need for more course availability, I am confident in my discussions with area teachers and administrators that brick and mortar schools are already provided those services. This is in addition to providing an educational home for students with the added benefit of extracurricular activities like band, the arts, and student clubs.  I also find this legislation premature given that the state is in the middle of a study cycle that will provide important information on the outcomes we’re seeing under this mode of instruction."

However, Rep. Lisa Brown, D-West Bloomfield, the ranking Democrat on the House Education Committee, argued that increasing the number of Michigan's cyber schools was premature. She said the issue was really about sending additional dollars to the private companies that operate cyber schools.

“This will mean more money going to CEOs who make as much as $5 million a year,” Rep. Brown said. “I don't understand why we're moving so quickly on this. We had agreed to an experiment with two cyber schools. We were supposed to get a report on them after two years. Now, we're doing this even before we've seen the report.

“K-12 Inc., the company with the CEO who makes $5 million, did not even meet Annual Yearly Progress (AYP) requirements,” she said. “It was recently reported that the Pentagon doesn't even want recruits who are from nontraditional schools.”

With enactment of Senate Bill 619, the allowable number of Michigan's accepted cyber schools could increase over the next few years. There could be no more than five until 2014; no more than 10 until 2015;  and the cap would be set at 15 after that.

In addition, the legislation limits the number of students (or members) a cyber school could have. They would be limited to 2,500 for the first year; 5,000 the second year  and 10,000 for the third and subsequent years.

The vote in the House was a long time coming. Senate Bill 619, is sponsored by Sen. Patrick Colbeck, R-Canton. It was passed by the Senate with a 20-18 vote on Oct. 27.  Typically, if it takes that long for a bill to be brought up after moving from one chamber to another, it means changes had to be made to garner enough support for passage, which was the case in the House. That means the bill has to be sent back to the Senate for a concurrence vote before it would be sent on to Gov. Rick Snyder.

During the House floor debate on the bill, Rep. Tom McMillin, R-Rochester Hills, argued that the issue came down to trusting parents or trusting the government.

“I love empowering parents,” Rep. McMillin said. “It comes down to this – I trust parents to do what's best for their child.”

House Democratic Floor Leader Kate Segal, D-Battle Creek, argued against the bill, claiming that increasing the number of cyber schools in the state would be experimenting with the lives of Michigan children.

“Very simply, the fact is that the children of our state are not mice or lab rats,” Rep. Segal said. “Study after study shows that cyber schools do not give students the education they need.”

Many of the studies Rep. Segal referred to – however – were done by or paid for by entities  that have traditionally opposed the movement toward more schools of choice.

The Republicans who voted no were contacted and offered the opportunity to comment.

“I voted no on this bill for a very straight-forward reason,” Rep. Farrington said. “I do not believe in cyber schools or e-education as a 100 percent component of education. If there are some courses offered, I'm in favor of that and I think schools should go that way.

“I also believe that, as a society, we need to learn how to get together more,” he said. “One of the things this (cyber school expansion) does is separate people.”

Rep. Goike argued that cyber school costs are less than those of traditional schools – therefore Senate Bill 619 should not have notched per pupil spending for each cyber school student at the same level as the per pupil rate for regular schools.

“I have been following you (Capitol Confidential) on this and other issues,” Rep. Goike said. “I look at this from the view of a true conservative, I don't think we should be spending $6,800 per student (roughly the state's per pupil spending level) on this. When you figure out what it actually costs; it's about $1,000 per pupil. If we're going to do this, it should be as a cost savings; not as a cost shift.”

Rep. Forlini said he opposed the bill because it should have had language preventing cyber schools from collecting money for dropouts.

“We have no definition of a dropout,” he said. “A big concern I have with cyber schools is that we'll end up paying for students who never even login. I had an amendment to fix this. ...But, for some reason, my amendment didn't get into the bill. Without that accountability, I couldn't support the bill.”

Rep. Glardon argued that before approving additional cyber schools, the legislature should have waited for the report on the state's two current experimental cyber schools.

“I would like to state that I am not opposed to virtual or on-line learning and I support giving parents more options,” Rep. Glardon said. “ However, the cyber school legislation was passed (in 2009) with the understanding that there would be two years of data to evaluate before considering new legislation.  I would have preferred to wait until we received the two years of data before considering expanding cyber schools in Michigan.”

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