The Department of Education and Early Development surprised educators, school districts, and Alaska families with an announcement March 30 of a brand-new Alaska Statewide Virtual School. Ostensibly, this was one of DEED’s solutions to the mounting COVID-19 pandemic and the disruption it was having on student learning across Alaska. Providing our students with a robust suite of online lessons and opportunities is something we should all support when our community schools close for long durations.
The devil, however, is in the details.
The good intentions behind the March 30 announcement were quickly overshadowed as Alaskans learned that DEED had sent more than $500,000 to the scandal-plagued Florida Virtual Schools to provide content to Alaska students without consulting school districts or Alaska educators. I was inundated by confused and angry messages from teachers across Alaska wondering why this decision was made, why DEED wasn’t working with one or several of the 31 correspondence schools currently operating in our state, and why teachers from Florida were being asked to instruct our students.
DEED Commissioner Michael Johnson’s recent opinion piece in the Anchorage Daily News addresses this frustration, and he apologized for the rollout during an April 22 appearance before a joint meeting of the House and Senate Education Committees in the Alaska Legislature. While I appreciate these efforts to clarify his intent, the issue of distance delivery and online instruction demands more public attention and a conversation involving all Alaska education stakeholder groups starting with parents, students, educators and administrators.
Ensuring that Alaska students continue to have the opportunity to be taught by teachers in their own district whether in a traditional classroom setting or online platform is not just something that the 12,000 members of NEA-Alaska want. It’s something that the majority of Alaskans demand. The contract with Florida Virtual Schools should be terminated, and DEED should work cooperatively with school districts and Alaska’s best educators to create an Alaska-based distance delivery program.
During this crisis, Alaska educators have proved themselves ready to confront and overcome the considerable obstacles of distance learning in America’s largest state. Our educators’ ability to adapt has been on full display as they work long hours to connect with families and ensure the continuation of learning. These personal connections between educators and families will be among the first things lost if we continue down the road of outsourcing Alaska teacher jobs to Floridians.
I’ve read the contract between DEED and Florida Virtual Schools, and I understand the intent to train as many as 54 Alaska teachers to deliver online curriculum using the FLVS platform. This raises a number of questions, but perhaps the most important question is: Why? The contract with FLVS is worth $525,000. How many laptops, Wi-Fi hotspots or other pieces of education technology could have been purchased using this money? Better yet, why not inject this half a million dollars into existing programs led by Alaska educators? Surely, every dollar that can be spent in Alaska right now should be spent in Alaska, given our bleak economic outlook.
Alaska can and should build a virtual content platform that can be used by all Alaska teachers to add to their inventory of lessons. But that platform must be built with the input and guidance of Alaska educators and families. We must also make sure that democratically elected local school boards play a strong role in overseeing our public schools and distance delivery programs. Local choice is something that Alaskans support, and it’s the way that we make sure that the education we deliver is culturally appropriate and relevant to our students.
As educators, we care deeply about student learning. We don’t like ideas that diminish opportunities, and we are always looking at ways to maximize the educational impact we can have on students on a daily basis. Digital and online platforms can do some things very well, and we have always embraced them for that. However, we must recognize their shortcomings and work collaboratively to overcome them should they become more integral to delivering a high quality education for every student, every day, as has been the case over the past month.
We welcome the idea of working cooperatively to develop a strong and flexible education system in Alaska. Let’s create it with Alaska values, and put Alaska students’ needs first. Florida Virtual Schools need not apply.
I have a lot of respect for Commissioner Johnson. He has always been open, willing to listen, and has provided Alaska educators with the opportunity to weigh in on nearly every plan and priority he has set for public education. The Alaska Statewide Virtual School is the one notable exception. In the spirit of Alaska’s Education Challenge — and the collaboration inherent in that document — let’s reset, come together, and do what’s best for Alaska kids.
Tim Parker is a high school English teacher who has spent more than 20 years teaching in Fairbanks public schools. In 2007, he was awarded the BP Teacher of the Year Award for Fairbanks. He currently serves as the President of NEA-Alaska.
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