The Anti-Science Curriculum of Virtual Charter Schools

William Bennett's K12 curriculum is religious-based,
will deliberately distort evolution, and will be anti-science

by Steven Schafersman
October 31, 2003

The virtual charter schools program being considered by the Texas State Board of Education (SBOE) is nothing more than a virtual home school vouchers program. The intent of its sponsors is to allow parents--primarily fundamentalist and evangelical Christian parents--the means to educate their children using a Christian curriculum at state expense. The intended virtual charter school program and curriculum is the one proposed to the Texas Legislature earlier this year by William Bennett. Bennett was defeated on three separate bills during the recent legislative session. He visited the Capitol twice during the session to personally lobby on behalf of virtual charter schools. In the first vote on virtual charters, the House voted to not bring the issue back the entire session because there was such strong opposition to it.

The proposed SBOE charter involving the University of North Texas (UNT) has been advertised to focus on grades K-7, but the program is severely flawed. The state would pay for a computer, Internet connection, and printer for all students, which in effect is a free computer for home-schooled children. There is a place for online learning and educational technologies, but this is not appropriate for children at this age. Young students need adult supervision and instruction; distance learning is for older students who have already developed the necessary study skills and self-discipline and motivation to learn on their own. Speaking from over two decades of experience, only college-aged students have these capabilities.

But there are even worse problems with virtual charters than the pedagogical ones. The virtual charters proposed during the legislative session exempted students from taking standardized tests and conforming to the state curriculum (the TEKS, or Texas Essential Knowledge and Skills). In effect, there is to be no accountability. Lack of accountability is fine for parents who want to indoctrinate their children in the tenets and beliefs of their religion rather than teach them the usual TEKS sciences, social studies, and humanities of the public school system. Shortchanging one's own children in their educational needs that allow them to live and succeed in the secular world may seem to many to be egregious, but frequently the ultra-religious have different priorities than other people.

The SBOE wants to change the rules that apply to charter schools so that a university, such as UNT, can use a virtual charter school as a laboratory school. University charters have less regulation and are deemed unnecessary to monitor. The motivation of some members of the SBOE to see a virtual charter school program enacted is obvious--they want to initiate such a program with a single school so that it can achieve some stability and acceptance, and then enlarge and duplicate such schools throughout the state, thereby giving religious parents the opportunity to escape the public school system and have the State of Texas foot the bill for their children's sectarian schooling. But the motivation of UNT remains a mystery; such schools would offer no opportunity for teacher training in a classroom setting--the ostensible purpose of laboratory schools.

The last problem with this virtual charter school is the curriculum. William Bennett's K12 curriculum distorts the topic of evolution and is thus anti-scientific. The distortion is by design, not accidental. The following statements reveal Bennett's pseudoscientific objectives:

"We're centered in the Judeo-Christian tradition, we do not ignore faith and religion, we do not ignore the arguments against evolution, because there are some."

You mentioned evolution. How does the curriculum does address the topic?

"[W]e're not up to that [age group] yet. I think what we'll say is, Here's evolution, this is a definition, this is what other people think, this is what a lot of the scientific community thinks, this is what a lot of the criticisms are. You decide, parent and child, working your way through this how you want to evaluate this." (http://www.beliefnet.com/story/91/story_9103_1.html)

[A]ccording to Bennett, the science curriculum presents evolution, creationism, and intelligent design as equally tenable explanations for the existence of life. (http://www.beliefnet.com/story/92/story_9292_1.html)

The K12 curriculum has reached the fifth grade without mentioning evolution. That is not unusual. However, Bennett obviously plans to misrepresent the true scientific nature and stature of the topic of evolution in his curriculum, and this is plainly wrong. The only possible reason to distort science in a home school curriculum is to pander to fundamentalist and evangelical Christians who believe in creationism rather than evolution. Bennett's virtual home school curriculum is explicitly based on Judeo-Christian traditions, and today that is a code-phrase for diminishing or distorting evolution.

In the final analysis, William Bennett's K12 science curriculum will be an educational disaster from the viewpoint of legitimate modern science, and is thus not acceptable for adoption by any state that values quality science education for its students. The virtual charter school program and its pseudoscientific curriculum should thus be rejected by the Texas SBOE, just as it was rejected by the Texas Legislature.

There are many other good reasons to oppose virtual charter schools. Please see the editorials below.


They don't get it

Fort Worth Star-Telegram
October 26, 2003
http://www.dfw.com/mld/startelegram/news/opinion/7101999.htm

The Bible tells about Jesus raising a man named Lazarus from the dead. It's an inspiring story, but it only happened once; the next time Lazarus died -- well, he died and presumably went on to his heavenly reward.

Efforts to set up virtual charter schools in Texas died three times during the Legislature's regular session this year. And guess what? They're alive again.

Pushed by officials from the University of North Texas, the State Board of Education is scheduled to consider measures next week to make it easier for proponents of statewide, computer-based schools to apply for and receive a charter and millions of dollars in public funding.

There are good reasons to believe that teaching through the Internet eventually will have a place in Texas public education. One day, children who face circumstances that prevent them from going to a brick-and-mortar school, or who simply don't learn well in the classroom setting, will get their lessons online.

But three times this year, the Legislature said that Texas isn't ready to do that yet -- or at least isn't ready to pay for it. The state must first solve the very serious funding crisis that is eating away at its neighborhood public schools.

Still, some key staff members at the Texas Education Agency and at least one influential State Board of Education member say that they believe the idea of virtual charter schools could soon move ahead, despite the legislative rejection. And UNT is pushing hard to do just that.

When did it come about that action by the Texas Legislature is treated, only a few months later, as if it were meaningless?

It shouldn't be that way.

The House and the Senate dealt with virtual charter school bills on April 23. Opponents said that the measures were tailored to pay for educating home-schooled children -- estimates at the time said that there were 70,000 to 150,000 home-schooled kids in the state -- at state expense.

A report from the Legislative Budget Board said that by 2006, virtual charter schools could take $10.6 million in annual funding away from neighborhood public schools.

Just before the legislative session began in January, the TEA sent lawmakers a report saying that Texas was not yet ready to fund and regulate full-scale virtual schools.

But UNT put a lot of weight behind the idea, as did K-12, a for-profit company led by former U.S. Education Secretary William Bennett that sells a curriculum for Internet-based learning. The lobbying effort was vigorous and well-funded.

The virtual charter schools bill passed in the Senate, but amendments limited it to two university-sponsored schools and only 2,000 students.

The House bill had no such limits. Not only did a bipartisan majority of House members reject the bill, but they then voted to never bring it up again. That's the parliamentary equivalent of throwing the virtual charter bill on the floor and stomping on it.

Only a month later, the idea was alive again. It resurfaced in the Senate as a "technology pilot program" amendment to a House bill on science education. Supporters even attached a rider to the biennial state budget so that the amendment would have funding if it survived.

Limited again to 2,000 students, the virtual school pilot amendment passed the Senate but then disappeared from the bill by the time it came out of conference committee.

The twice-dead proposal stirred a third time on the next-to-last day of the session, in a Senate bill aimed at boosting school performance. But House members inserted into the record a statement that nothing in that bill could be used to establish virtual charter schools.

Three rejections of one idea in a single legislative session should be enough to convey a clear message.

Still, next week, the State Board of Education will conduct its annual review of the charter school application process. It will consider UNT's request that this process, which was tailored for brick-and-mortar schools, be revised to accommodate virtual charters.

Perhaps the most crucial change would be to allow virtual charter schools to receive funding based on something other than the current average daily attendance model, which requires all schools to count the number of students sitting at their desks every day. That model doesn't work in the virtual environment, where students may work at different times and at their own pace.

UNT's plans call for a virtual charter school serving 3,000 to 4,000 students across Texas, from kindergarten through seventh grade. Charter schools this year are expected to receive almost $6,500 per student in state funding.

Texas Education Agency officials say that, if the changes to the application process are approved, they expect UNT to submit its application for a virtual charter early next year.

David Bradley, the State Board of Education member who heads the committee that will examine the charter application process, says that the board has statutory authority under earlier law to approve UNT's application, despite the Legislature's clear disapproval this year. David Anderson, the TEA's chief counsel, agrees.

That makes next week's action on the charter application process a crucial turning point: Give UNT something more accommodating to virtual schools, and the school's soon-to-follow application faces few further hurdles. And in the process, the State Board of Education thumbs its nose at the Legislature.

It also sends the message that yet one more thing is more important than finding the money to properly pay the teachers, fund the programs and take care of the buildings in neighborhood schools.

It shouldn't be that way.


Cyberschools Rise From Grave

Austin Chronicle
October 31, 2003
http://www.austinchronicle.com/issues/dispatch/2003-10-31/pols_naked8.html

Despite repeated rejections of "virtual charter schools" -- using public school funds for online home-schooling -- during an otherwise extremely conservative 78th Legislature, the State Board of Education and the University of North Texas are attempting to do an end run next week and approve a UNT virtual charter application covering some 3,000 to 4,000 students from kindergarten through 7th grade (eventually 12th), at a potential cost of millions of dollars in public school funds.

Mind you, the Lege -- hardly unfriendly to "school choice" scams and gimmicks -- explicitly gave a thumbs-down to virtual charters; the House even recorded floor discussion of "legislative intent" to confirm its rejection. But UNT is determined to move forward with its application, and at least some members of the SBOE seem set on showing their backsides to legislators, arguing that they already have the authority to approve virtual charters, just as they have the authority now to OK physical charter schools. But the SBOE's current charter school rules, as written, don't allow for online schools. So UNT is lobbying the board to change the rules.

There's another, more lucrative lobby in the shadows -- former U.S. Secretary of Education William "Snake Eyes" Bennett's K12 Inc., which failed miserably to get through the front door at the Lege but is likely to be the well-rewarded software contractor if UNT can get its virtual charter through the back door. Teachers groups and public school advocates are organizing to head off UNT during the SBOE meetings Nov. 5-7; the board's Planning Committee will consider the proposed changes to the charter rules at its meetings Nov. 5 and 6, and public testimony is invited for the Nov. 6 meeting, which is posted for 11 a.m. but is subject to delay pending other board business. Those wishing to testify need to register on the Friday (Oct. 31) or Monday (Nov. 3) preceding the meeting; call the committee at 463-9701.


Stop Virtual Charter Schools at SBOE

Carolyn Boyle, Coordinator
Coalition for Public Schools

Contact State Board of Education members to oppose online virtual charter schools

The Coalition for Public Schools is in the throes of a continuing battle to stop publicly-funded statewide virtual charter schools for home-schooled students in kindergarten-12th grade. This week we are concentrating on one of several battle fronts where we need immediate assistance.

Advocacy With State Board of Education:  Goal--To stop revisions to applications and guidelines for university charter schools and open-enrollment charter schools that would allow virtual charter schools for home-schooled students.

Background:  At its September meeting, Chancellor Lee Jackson of the University of North Texas asked the State Board of Education to amend its charter application guidelines so that UNT could apply for a university charter as a statewide online virtual school.  Current application forms and guidelines are applicable for a campus-based charter school in a single geographic location, which would not be applicable for a statewide virtual school.

The State Board of Education is scheduled to take action at its November 7 meeting to adopt new guidelines and application forms for university charter schools and open-enrollment charter schools. An agenda packet for the meeting has already been sent to the SBOE members, but the charter guidelines and application forms were not provided. I've just been informed by a Texas Education Agency official that the changes appropriate for virtual schools requested by University of North Texas were not made, because the Board did not give the staff adequate guidance on the issue at its September meeting. Proposed changes to charter application forms and guidelines will be discussed by the Planning Committee on Wednesday, approved by the Planning Committee on Thursday, and considered by the full State Board of Education on Friday.

We are urging activists to contact State Board of Education members to express opposition to any proposed changes in the guidelines and application forms that would allow statewide virtual charter schools for home-schooled children. 

Here are some sample points to make, but please add your own thoughts and use your own wording:


Last updated: 31 October 2003