Brooks: Berke should check his facts

Brooks: Berke should check his facts

November 10th, 2012 by By Rep. Harry Brooks in Opinion Columns

Recently, I have encountered misinformation in regard to virtual education opportunities and the new Tennessee Virtual Academy (TNVA) here in Tennessee. I can only assume it is coming from individuals who may not understand the real virtual education opportunity in our state or who unfairly oppose the concept.

Hamilton County now has the opportunity to operate a virtual school. Local education leaders see the value in virtual education and are organizing such a school. Criticism from state Sen. Andy Berke, now a local mayoral candidate, should not deter the Hamilton County school board from fulfilling its plan. Many students will benefit from this effort. We should not eliminate this virtual option for those families with students who have special needs or do not perform well in a brick-and-mortar environment.

The model of instruction used in virtual education has been in use for years by many of our public post-secondary institutions. In addition, most K-12 school districts use some method of virtual education within their educational model at the current time. These have proven to provide a valid educational opportunity for those students involved. It is critical that students be given access to educational programs currently unavailable in the local school building but available online through virtual education.

Berke is critical of a long-standing state policy allowing students to transfer from one system to another. This occurs every year throughout Tennessee. It is ironic that he never sought to change this policy while serving in Nashville.

Others criticisms from Berke have been aimed at a company called K12 Inc., which manages a virtual school in Union County, Tenn., including ad hominem attacks against one of the company's early investors, Michael Milken. The fact is that Mr. Milken, an education philanthropist, was an early venture-capitalist investor in the company. But it is ironic that Berke has, in the past, supported and endorsed the Milken Foundation awards (which bears the same man's name) when given to Tennessee schools and education leaders.

Berke claims he is also concerned about schools doing business with a private company. The fact is that every school system in the state currently does, and in reality must do, business with private companies to supply curriculum materials, food, supplies, copiers, textbooks, etc. It is most ironic that he objects to the "uncharted water" of contracting with private companies, which offer a source of revenue to operate our local school systems.

Under the Tennessee NCLB rules, there are five school districts in the state with schools that fall into the state "Priority Schools" list. This list comprises the poorest performing schools in the state which, therefore, are at risk of being taken over by the Tennessee Department of Education and placed in the Achievement School District to be reconstituted and turned around. Memphis leads the list, but tied for second and third place, with six schools each, are Davidson and Hamilton counties. Knox and Hardeman counties have one school each on the list.

My point is simple. Some of the loudest legislative critics of virtual schools and the Tennessee Virtual Academy live in Davidson and Hamilton counties. Both of these counties have six schools already at risk of state takeover for poor performance.

One of the most outspoken critics of virtual schools in the state is Sen. Andy Berke -- even though virtual schools offer a promising way to help children currently being poorly served by Hamilton County Schools. Before he is critical of new virtual schools in Union County, or elsewhere, I challenge Berke to take a look at the schools in his own backyard.

Our priority as legislators is to provide multiple tools to develop improvement programs for our school systems. One of these tools includes virtual education. We should assist our local school systems, like Hamilton County, to seek multiple solutions to serve parents and students, and allow Union County, which is ultimately accountable for the new Tennessee Virtual Academy, enough time to allow for adequate review and potential success of their new learning option.

State Rep. Harry Brooks from Knoxville is a member, and former chairman, of the House Education Committee in the Tennessee General Assembly.