Testimony by NJEA Secretary/Treasurer Marie Blistan

Joint Committee on the Public Schools
December 5, 2012

Good afternoon.  I am Marie Blistan, Secretary-Treasurer of the New Jersey Education Association.  I am also a teacher with 30 years of experience in the classroom.  I’ve taught every age from kindergarten through 12th grade, and students of all abilities.  Most of my career has been spent working with students who receive special education services. 

Thank you for the opportunity to address this Joint Committee on such an important topic.  I am very pleased that you are taking this issue seriously, and taking the time to study it carefully.  The decisions you make will have tremendous implications for the future of public education in New Jersey. 

There are really two basic issues at stake when it comes to virtual charter schools in New Jersey.  The first is the legal issue of whether they are even permissible under New Jersey’s charter school statute.  The second is whether they will produce results that justify experimenting with our children’s education.

I won’t spend much time on the issue of legality.  As you may know, NJEA filed a lawsuit challenging the approval of two “blended” virtual charter schools in New Jersey on the grounds that the law in no way authorizes either virtual schools or so-called blended schools.  The courts will decide that issue. 

But it will likely fall to legislators to decide whether or not to formally authorize virtual charter schools.  It is your right and great responsibility as our elected representatives to make that decision.  And I trust you will make it based on the best interests of students.

If you do not, the Department of Education has shown that it is more than willing to make that decision for you.  It has moved quickly and aggressively to authorize virtual charter schools in New Jersey, despite significant questions about both their legality and their effectiveness. 

Let me be very clear that NJEA supports the use of technology in education, and so do I.  Over my career, I have seen tremendous growth in the use of technology in classrooms.  Students today have access to tools and resources that I wish my first students had been able to use.  We must never stop making progress.

But that is a far cry from the vision of virtual school proponents and operators, who envision students being educated primarily or even entirely online, with limited personal interaction with teachers.  You can already see that in Newark, where two operators have opened so-called blended schools that in reality provide 100 percent of their core curriculum content instruction online.  Some of their students will not even be required to report to school at all.  We have significant concerns about those kinds of virtual schools and their ability to provide students with a truly thorough and efficient education.

I mentioned earlier that I’ve seen a lot of change over my career in education.  But through all of those years, and through all the change and progress, I have learned that some things remain the same.  And the single most important element of education hasn’t changed since the first day I set foot in a classroom as a student myself: a good teacher makes a real difference.

I don’t think anyone here disagrees with that fundamental truth.  The research is clear that a strong teacher is the single most important in-school factor affecting student achievement.  While many other factors affect how students learn, no one questions that teachers are incredibly important. NJEA believes that we must have a good teacher in every classroom.

And for whatever disagreements we have had with both the current administration and Department of Education, this has been one area of complete agreement: good teachers matter.

So we are dismayed to see the Department pursuing an agenda, under the guise of virtual charter schools and so-called blended charter schools, which completely ignores the central role of teachers in high quality education.

Because there are many things no computer screen can do.  A computer screen can’t sense if a child is upset, distracted, bored, sick or hungry.

A computer screen can’t tell if a wrong answer is the result of a simple miscalculation, or a failure to understand the whole concept being taught.

A computer screen can’t talk to a child about what’s bothering her, refer a child in crisis to intervention services or offer a listening ear to a child who needs it.

And make no mistake.  Those aren’t just nice extras that a teacher offers – those things are a critical part of successful education for every student.  And all of them are missing in virtual learning environments, whether it’s a pure virtual school or a so-called blended school where students rarely, if ever, interact face to face with the adults who are supposed to be teaching them.

Teaching isn’t like tax preparation, where all you need to do is fill in the right data and a computer can do all the hard work.  Learning isn’t a video game, where success is defined by putting in enough screen time and completing enough tasks to rise to the next level.  Teaching and learning are a fundamentally human interaction, where a teacher and a student work together to help that student understand a concept, apply it, and build on it for greater understanding and more learning.

If virtual schools could do those things as well as real schools, their results would bear it out.  But they don’t.  The simple fact is that virtual schools do not measure up to the level of traditional schools where the teacher-student relationship is central. 

A comprehensive study of the largest virtual school operator, K12, Inc.—which, by the way, is a for-profit company whose stock is traded on the New York Stock Exchange – shows just how badly those schools lag.  Despite serving a less diverse and more affluent student population, K12 schools have lower test scores, lower graduation rates and are far less likely to make Adequate Yearly Progress, as defined by No Child Left Behind. 

I’ve shared a copy of that research with you, and I urge you to read it for yourself.  I’ve also shared results of other surveys which show similarly dismal results.  These studies are eye opening.  The difference in performance between virtual schools and real schools is not small, and it makes me wonder why any parent would entrust the education of his or her child to virtual school operators with such poor performance records. 

Of course, it is easier to understand why some adults advocate for virtual schools.  At the same time it was achieving very poor academic results, K12 has achieved impressive financial returns.  In fact, in a statement to investors last May, the company announced that it seeks to “increase profitability in fiscal year 2013” by implementing as much as $20 million in cost savings.  It is also why that same company spent more than $21 million dollars on advertising in the first eight months of this year alone.  More students means more profits in the form of more taxpayer funding.  While the benefit to investors of that aggressive pursuit of profit is clear, it is far from clear how students in those already-struggling schools will benefit from the company’s determination to cut costs and splurge on advertising in order to return more profit to investors.

If our purpose here is to figure out how to do education on the cheap, without regard for outcomes, then virtual schools deserve attention.  They spend less than traditional schools and tend to be very profitable for their operators.  Unfortunately for students in those schools, their academic results appear to reflect their focus on profits over students.

New Jersey has always worked hard to have the best schools.  We have invested in education, and the results show that our investment has paid off.  Other states, such as Florida, have taken a different approach.  They have looked to cut costs without regard for the consequences, and have embraced virtual education.  It shows up in their academic results as well.  This is an important point.

I don’t want New Jersey to compete with Florida or any other state in an educational race to the bottom.  I want us to continue putting children first, to continue investing in their future and our own, and to continue to value great teachers as the key component to great public schools.

We can innovate without turning our back on what we know works best.

Thank you.