William J. Bennett, America's favorite "compassionate conservative," bestselling author of books on values and education, Ronald Reagan's secretary of education and George Bush Sr.'s drug czar, is founder of K12 Inc., a new online curriculum being marketed to homeschoolers and virtual charter schools. He spoke recently with Beliefnet's family producer, Wendy Schuman.

You used to be skeptical about using computers in education. What changed your mind?
David Gelernter changed my mind. David Gelernter is a professor of computer science at Yale, he's a well-known writer and social critic, he's a conservative like I am, one of the few professors at Yale who's a conservative. He's probably most famous for being the first target of the Unabomber. He's a brilliant man who is probably more skeptical about technology than I am. When I was approached about being the chairman of the board of K12, I called David and asked him, Can we do this, can we use the technology and do it right, and make the technology a helpful auxiliary, not the end in itself and not get so enraptured with the technology that we lose sight of the main aim of the project? And he said, Yeah, we can do it. And so we have built the system, the program that has done just that. The technology's good, it's simple, it's clear, I don't understand it. It's very complicated underneath. But it's a means to an end, and the end is to get the child and the parent to the substance of education.

You mentioned that you were approached. Did this idea not originate with you?
The idea of a school that everybody could go to via technology has long been an idea of mine, but the specific proposal was put forward by Ron Packard, who is a member of the advisory board of Empower America and works for the Knowledge Universe Learning Group. When Ron came to see me, he was carrying a copy of the book "The Educated Child," which I wrote three years ago. He said "We want to turn this book into a school. How would you like to be principal of the largest school in the world?" I said maybe, maybe.

Are you saying there's something missing with what's already out there?
I think there's some very good things out there. What our program does that's different is, first of all, it's comprehensive, it's not a tutoring program for this course or that course. It's everything, every lesson everyday for 13 years. Our curriculum has a point of view. We believe in certain things, we believe in certain ideas of right and wrong, and of knowledge and truth and that's manifest in our program. 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. And we have put together a first-class intellectual program which we think will well equip children for the challenges of the next century. The technology lets you self-pace and makes things accessible and keeps good records for you, and we think it's attractive and entertaining. But the heart of this program is the solid excellent educational basis it provides.

How do you teach character or virtues in the program?
It's implicit. That's the best way to do it. We make it plain to parents and other adults involved in the education of children, that their example, their prodding, their behavior is the critical element. There's nothing like the quiet power of example. We cannot substitute for them, we cannot substitute for the teachings of their church, for that instruction each week, but we can make it clear throughout our curriculum that these ideas, these virtues matter to us. We do that through the literature and through the history, primarily. So the stories children read from the very earliest grades have morals in them. Many of them are taken from the Junior Great Books, from "The Book of Virtues," from "World Compass," and our history is written with a view to making it clear that the acts of men and women matter, that acts have consequences.

Do you feel that untrained parents can do as good a job as professional teachers?
They're showing they can, they're showing it everyday, you prove the possible by the actual. I think what the success of homeschoolers has shown in the last five years is that the large-minded amateur can often be much more successful than the professional. The amateur meaning someone who doesn't have a school of education degree-which is probably a good thing if you want to educate a child.

Are the public schools so bad that you'd recommend homeschooling with this curriculum over going to public school?
I think that's a decision each parent has to make. We sent our boys to Catholic schools, because that's very important to us, that's our faith. Parents need to decide based on what their options are, where they live. What we've done in K12 is give people an option no matter where they live. We think homeschoolers have done extremely well on their own, there's no "think," there's no doubt about it. It's just a fact. This is a four-barrel carburetor for a homeschooling engine. We think this will increase efficiency and learning to an even greater degree. But we think it's a powerful tool in the hands of any committed adult and her children.

Are you going to use it with your own kids?
We still have a 12-year-old at home, and when the material gets up to that level . we're just going to have K through 2 this September and will be adding about four years each year. We'll be doing a number of our courses with Joe. And we will use it as a supplement to what he's getting in school. Parents who want to do stuff in the summer, who want to check what they're getting in school or what they're doing at home against somebody else's standard. And that's what K12 can provide as well.

You mentioned evolution. How does the curriculum does address the topic?
It will, it hasn't yet, we'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.

Is God mentioned in the curriculum?
Oh sure. It's kind of hard to explain the history of civilization without him.

How about questions of diversity, addressing the subject of homosexuality, people of color?
We don't take much cognizance of that. We address children as children. I think of them more as children of God, as moral and spiritual beings, and Americans. Those are the labels that I'm interested in. I'm not much interested in their color, or other accidents. And I think that the more we do of the approach we're taking, the better.

I've heard K12 can be an expensive package, between $1200 and $5000 a year.
It's not that high. If you have a computer and you are going to buy the entire K12 curriculum for kindergarten, first grade, or second grade this fall, it will be about $880. If you're lucky enough to be in Pennyslvania and you can sign up for the Pennsylvania virtual charter school, you will get the entire curriculum, plus a computer, plus a lot of other things, plus access to a teacher if you want one, and the state will pay for it.

The charter school is a home school?
Yes, you teach your child at home or in whatever environment you want. Pennsylvania is far-sighted on this, this is a nice deal for normally homeschooling parents. A lot will depend on what state you're in.

So you can apply for public funds for this program?
In some states, if you want to. A lot of homeschooling parents do not want anything to do with public funds or public structures. In Pennsylvania you're required to keep a time sheet and your child has to take an exam at the end of each year. To some parents that's not too bad, to others that's a real burden.

more from beliefnet and our partners
Close Ad