You can learn exhaustively about cyber charter schools in the National Study of Online Charter Schools, a major, three-part report released earlier this week. Significantly, although one of the think tanks presenting the data—the Center on Reinventing Public Education—and the funder of the three-part report—the Walton Foundation—actively endorse school choice and charter schools overall, the report’s conclusions about the giant online academies are scathing.
What are online charter schools? Mathematica Policy Research, author of the report’s first volume, Inside Online Charter Schools, explains: “Online charter schools—also known as virtual charters or cyber charters—are publicly-funded schools of choice that eschew physical school buildings and use technology to deliver education to students in their own homes. These schools typically provide students with computers, software, and network-based resources, while also providing access to teachers via email, telephone, web, and/or teleconference.” Mathematica examines 200 virtual schools that together serve approximately 200,000 students. “Student enrollment in online charter schools is highest in Ohio, Pennsylvania, and California, each of which had more than 25,000 students enrolled in 2012-2013; together those three states account for half of the online charter enrollments nationwide. In a short summary brief, Mathematica warns: “Our analysis indicates that the greatest challenge for online charter schools, in which student-teacher interactions are more limited than in conventional schools, is maintaining student engagement… Perhaps to compensate for limited student-teacher interaction, online charter schools expect parents to provide significant instructional support.” Mathematica’s longer report concludes that cyber schools generally provide students with less live contact with a teacher each week than students in conventional schools have each day.
The report from the Center on Reinventing Public Education (CRPE), whose focus is the public policy environment for virtual charter schools across the states, identifies some of the giant providers that dominate the online sector: “These mega-providers, the largest of which are K12 Inc. and Connections Academy, operate schools nationwide. In Ohio, K12 Inc. provides curriculum for the Ohio Virtual Academy which enrolls approximately 13,000 students. Similarly, in Pennsylvania K12 Inc. provides curriculum for the Agora Cyber Charter School that enrolls nearly 10,000 students, and Connections Academy operates the Commonwealth Connections Academy that serves a little over 8,000 students.” CRPE warns: “With such high enrollment in a limited number of schools and spread across few providers, a program that is lacking in quality may affect many thousands of students within one school and even more nationwide, especially if it is permitted to operate year after year with no accountability.” CRPE concludes that the laws states may have created for oversight of brick and mortar charter schools are frequently inappropriate for regulation of the giant cyber academies: “Our analysis shows that few states have created intentional and robust regulatory environments for online charter schools. For the most part, online charter schools have been squeezed into a more generic charter school regulatory framework that may not suit them. As a result, attempts by states to deal with very specific issues around enrollment, accountability, the educational program, and funding have been largely reactive and piecemeal, resulting in uneven policies that do not always serve the best interests of the students, schools, or states. Most charter laws are not designed to address the unique challenges posed by online charter schools….” CRPE adds: “The political environment may also be a factor. In Pennsylvania, K12 Inc. spent over $1.25 million lobbying the Pennsylvania legislature between 2007 and 2015.”
Through a complicated algorithm, Stanford CREDO’s extremely technical, 114 page report compares the academic achievement of students in online schools to matched-pair brick and mortar schools. But the results are simple and clear. In math, students accomplish the equivalent of 180 fewer days of learning (a whole school year) than their traditional public school peers and the equivalent of 72 fewer days of learning in reading. The researchers conclude: “(T)he sizes of the coefficients leave little doubt that attending an online charter school leads to lessened academic growth for the average student.” “(E)ven the students who attended the highest performing online network schools had academic growth which was weaker or not significantly different….” The report continues: “Academic benefits from online charter schools are currently the exception rather than the rule. Online charter schools provide a maximum of flexibility for students with schedules which do not fit the TPS (traditional public school) setting… Not all families may be equipped to provide the direction needed for online schooling.” The CREDO researchers go so far as to suggest that states should limit expansion of the online charter sector until the performance of current online schools has been carefully assessed; after all, there are natural constraints that limit such rapid growth of brick and mortar schools including the schools’ capacity to build or locate facilities. “Without these natural constraints, online schools have the potential to expand more rapidly than traditional schools. This makes it critical for authorizers to ensure online charter schools demonstrate positive outcomes for students before being allowed to grow and that online charter schools grow at a pace which continues to lead to improved outcomes for their students.”
This research is welcome though very troubling from the point of view of the 200,000 students enrolled in online charters and from the perspective of states’ investment of tax dollars. Robin Lake, director of the Center on Reinventing Public Education, is quoted commenting on the study by Cleveland Plain Dealer reporter Patrick O’Donnell: “These are not the happiest of findings.” Overall there is an urgent need for better regulation of cyber academies. Whether state legislators, enriched by campaign contributions from the giant, for-profit online charters, will take these reports to heart is another question.