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Bill would allow online driver’s ed for home-schoolers

REUTERS/Eric Gaillard

Nestled in the fine print of the omnibus transportation bill pending before the state Legislature is a provision allowing home-schoolers to sign their kids up for online driver’s education. And dozens of commercial digital driver-training programs already operating in other states are poised to start schooling Minnesota teens in cyberspace.  

As far as political alliances go, the love affair between home-schoolers and for-profit online education companies would seem about as sweet as it gets.

Since the goal of home schooling often is keeping kids out of public schools, the advent of the virtual school is a major boon. Sweeter still: When the cyber-academy is a charter school, with taxpayers picking up the tab for everything from hardware to curriculum.

Indeed, presidential also-ran Rick Santorum got into trouble several years ago when it was revealed that he had moved out of the state where a public school district paid a cyber charter $100,000 to home-school several of his children.

For the companies operating the schools, every new customer fattens the bottom line.

‘Burdensome’ oversight

Both constituencies occupy a natural niche, then, in the far-right, pro-big-business American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC), which last year gave Minnesota high marks for its entry into online learning, but a mere C for its “burdensome” home-school oversight.

Corporations, foundations and think tanks pay thousands of dollars to join ALEC, which charges lawmakers — most of them Republicans — $50 a year to join. Legislators are treated to expenses-paid policy confabs at ritzy resort destinations where they are given model bills drafted by private-sector participants.

Education is one of the group’s largest playbooks. And some of its for-profit online members already enroll Minnesota students.

Like ALEC’s model bills, digital driver’s ed popped up this year in multiple statehouses. But at first blush, anyway, this effort appears to belong to the national home-school community, which has been pushing for an inexpensive alternative to the driver-training available through some public schools.

At-home driving studies

Last year’s Legislature passed a law allowing home-schoolers to provide the 30 hours of classroom instruction prospective teen drivers are required to participate in. Those wishing to take advantage of the loophole must provide documentation they are registered with their local district as working toward a high school diploma and are using texts approved by the state Department of Public Safety.

If the current measure passes, home-schoolers ages 15 and up could simply sign up with an online driving school whose curricula passed DPS’ muster. In either instance, teens still must pass both written and road exams to get a license.

So is it a terrible idea? No one knows. Internet ads for the programs don’t inspire confidence. Prices can go as low as $19.95, and many companies promise rapid graduation.

In 2008, the Legislature ordered DPS to study the issue. At the time, some 12 states nationwide allowed online driver training. Yet only two, Texas and California, had collected any data at all.

Concerns, but little data

Texas’ investigation was limited to the effectiveness of parental instruction per se, on how well the training worked. California looked at graduates’ pass rates on the licensing test. Neither state tallied accident or safety data. Several states that had done no evaluation told DPS they had concerns about quality, security and fraud.

In general, the DPS report delivered to lawmakers the following year noted, driver education is correlated to lower accident rates. And there is very little data on what makes a program good.

The Home School Legal Defense Association, by contrast, asserts that parent-taught drivers are safer than their formally trained road-mates. Their rationale: Parents who teach their children to “live by God’s absolute moral standards” invariably outperform broken public schools.

“Teaching our own children how to drive is merely an extension of this philosophy,” the group posits. “It is an opportunity to apply the same principles involved in successful homeschooling. But you can add one important ingredient and incentive: in driver’s training, your children’s lives are at stake.”

This year, department officials testified before lawmakers that if they endorsed the cyber-schools at a very minimum a task force would need to take up these and other issues regarding implementation, a DPS spokesman said.

Online requirement bill

Rep. Pam MyhraRep. Pam Myhra

Another, more significant online-education measure also is still awaiting final action by lawmakers. Its chief author, Burnsville Republican Rep. Pam Myhra, has insisted she did not get the bill from ALEC.

Strikingly similar to one of the group’s model bills, this one requires all Minnesota students, starting four years from now, to have taken at least one digital course in order to graduate from high school. As first introduced, it would have allowed those courses to take place in virtual classrooms to be located anywhere and be operated by employees who might or might not be licensed teachers.

As it moved through various committees, HF 2127 was amended to require all courses be taught by licensed Minnesota educators, offered by approved operators and include digital coursework done in schools. It was massaged into something Minnesota’s larger districts, most of which already offer digital courses, are now OK with, although it will pose myriad challenges in Greater Minnesota.

One of Myhra’s co-sponsors, Rep. Mark Buesgens, R-Savage, is the chief author of the digital-driving-instruction bill. A former aide to Republican gubernatorial candidate Tom Emmer, Buesgens is probably better known for pleading guilty to a drunk driving charge in 2010. A year ago, he acknowledged that he had violated the terms of his probation in that case when he was pulled over after drinking again.

Comments (8)

  1. Submitted by Pete Barrett on 04/24/2012 - 10:32 am.

    On-line Is NOT Homeschooling

    Enrolling in an on-line school, whether a public school, a charter school (charters are PUBLIC schools), or a private school is NOT homeschooling. Homeschooling is directing the education of your own child using resources you deem proper for your child.

    That said, since driver’s ed is not part of the required curriculum and is not offered during the school day, I don’t understand why allowing students to take driver’s ed on line should be limited to home school students. I don’t believe that there is any requirement for public school districts to offer driver’s ed and since there are private companies that offer drive’s ed this would appear to have little to do with the politics of education.

    The tone of the article strongly suggests that home schoolers are natural political conservatives. Those with more in depth knowledge of home schooling no that this is far from the truth. That does not mean that there are not conservative groups that are attempting to co-opt homeschoolers to advance their agendas.

    The Home School Legal Defense Association is viewed with suspicion by many home schoolers. While this private organization claims to speak for the home schooling movement, they have in some states advocated legislation that further restricts home schooling. Such changes make membership in HSLDA more attractive.

    Finally, given the lax standards of driver’s ed in this country (compare it to Germany), one might well wonder how much such education really contributes to highway safety and how much better we could be doing if we really got serious.

  2. Submitted by Pat Berg on 04/24/2012 - 10:52 am.

    What am I missing here?

    What is it about taking a digital course that is so critical that it needs to be enshrined into law? In what way is this a critical part of a student’s education?

    What is the justification they’re using for this?

    • Submitted by RB Holbrook on 04/24/2012 - 04:31 pm.

      It’s a twofer

      1. A lot of the providers of online education are for-profit companies (and, one might infer, members of ALEC);

      2. There is no requirement that the instructors in online courses be licensed teachers. Pushing students into online courses is another way of fighting teachers’ unions.

      Neither of those reasons will be given as the “justification,” of course. Proponents of this kind of corporatist boondoggle will couch it in terms of cost-savings for schools whose budgets have been pillaged (often, by those pushing compulsory online education), not to mention teaching critical online skills that students need and probably already have.

  3. Submitted by Logan Foreman on 04/24/2012 - 03:44 pm.

    This proposed bill

    Smells just like the other ALEC bills and proposals. There is undoubtedly an ulterior motive – probably payoffs, or campaign donations, from corporations involved.

    • Submitted by Ron Gotzman on 04/25/2012 - 10:04 am.

      Logan,As if the

      Logan,
      As if the “establishment, union, trickle down education monopoly, does not “own” the DFL party?
      Any threat to the largest special interest group in the State of Mn will be attacked by the entrenched and well-funded public education monopoly.

  4. Submitted by Pat Missling on 04/24/2012 - 11:28 pm.

    One mandated course is ALEC’s starter bill

    The online course requirement is just the first step to other ALEC bills like the Virtual Public Schools Act and the Innovation Schools Act that route taxpayer money to virtual schools run by private companies such as K12, Inc. More than 12 states have passed laws mandating an online course, and it’s K12 that benefits the most often. They lobby hard and contribute to campaigns often. K12 CEO Ronald J. Packard told investors, “We are now that much closer to our manifest destiny of making a K12 Inc. education available to every child.” In addition to profit there is the added bonus of cutting back on teachers and busting unions. Talk about your hostile takeovers.

    How have K12 schools performed? State test scores and graduation rates are lower that those of traditional schools. Only one third of K12’s schools met NCLB goals in 2010. Their Colorado Virtual Academy had a graduation rate of 12% in 2010; Ohio’s had 30%. Did K12 schools have to suffer the same consequences as traditional schools?

  5. Submitted by Rob Keehn on 04/25/2012 - 07:58 am.

    I guess I am a little confused about what the author is trying to get at in this article, as it meanders between quite a few different points. I think she is trying to say that taxpayer support for companies that provide educational resources outside the public school system is bad. For some reason, though, she also seems to say that political support for this is driven by home-schoolers, because home-schoolers are public school hating super-conservatives (or something along those lines).

    If that is her intent, it is obviously a bit broad.

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