Senior Correspondent Desirée Taylor
Esthere Tolbert’s 10-year old son Micah was supposed to start school in the fall at a Newark-based virtual charter school, where all classes are taught online to home-based students. But that changed recently when New Jersey education commissioner Christopher Cerf denied the school’s final application.
“We’re very surprised, very shocked,” said Tolbert. “We’d like to invite the commissioner to come and visit with us and … answer to us why can’t we have this education for our children.”
In a letter to Cerf, school board officials from the New Jersey Virtual Academy Charter School had similar questions noting they’ve already enrolled 850 students and hired teachers for their K-12 school based in Newark. Cerf also denied the charter for a second proposed virtual charter school for high school dropouts based in Tinton Falls, citing legal concerns and questions about oversight as reasons for rejecting what would have been New Jersey’s first virtual charter schools. Opponents to virtual charters echoed Cerf’s concerns.
“I think the most fundamental reason is they don’t work,” according to Susan Cauldwell from the group Save Our Schools NJ. “Study after study show children who attend virtual charters schools perform far worse than students in traditional public schools. Virtual charter schools are another on scarce public resources.”
Another concern of Cauldwell is that a for-profit company, K12 Inc., the nation’s largest online education firm, has ties to both schools. She questions whether online learning is suitable for every child, saying “the thought of a kindergartner sitting for 4 or 5 hours a day in front of a computer screen leaves me cold. That’s not the way children should be educated.”
But a company spokesperson points out K-12 courses are used in over 2,000 school districts in all 50 states. They help dropouts get a diploma and provide a safe alternative from bullying or dangerous schools. Micah’s mom agrees.
“I like this way of learning because it allows me to see a couple things — exactly what my child is learning I get to back up everything he’s learning because I’m right there with him helping him learn as well as the fact that he gets to learn more advanced if he wants to,” said Tolbert.
Meanwhile, officials from both virtual charter schools are asking Cerf to reconsider his decision. But with strong opposition from groups like the NJEA and Save Our Schools, it’s unlikely that will happen anytime soon.