When the largest pro-charter school advocacy organizations publish a report demanding major reforms in the sector for which they are themselves the primary advocates, you have to pay attention. The National Alliance for Public Charter Schools, the National Association of Charter School Authorizers, and 50 CAN (the pro-charter, pro-school “reform” network of state astro-turf advocacy groups) just published a scathing report on the abysmal performance of virtual, online academies.
These pro-charter organizations explain that the huge online academies are failing to educate students at the same time they are cheating taxpayers: “(T)he well-documented, disturbingly low performance by too many full-time virtual charter… schools should serve as a call to action for state leaders and authorizers across the country. It is time for state leaders to make the tough policy changes necessary to ensure that this model works more effectively for the students it serves. It is also time for authorizers to hold full-time, virtual charter schools accountable for performance, using measures and metrics suited to their programs and closing those that chronically fail their students.”
The new report presents facts about the growth of the online charter sector: “Of the 43 states and D.C. that have enacted charter school laws, 35 states plus D.C. allow full-time virtual charter schools. The eight that do not allow these schools are Delaware, Maryland, Massachusetts, New Jersey, New York, Rhode Island, Tennessee, and Virginia… As of August 2014, according to National Alliance research, there were 135 full-time virtual charter schools operating in 23 states and D.C…. According to National Alliance research, enrollment in full-time virtual charter schools is highly concentrated in three states—Ohio, Pennsylvania, and California—which collectively enroll over half of full-time virtual charter school students nationwide… Full-time virtual charter schools serve a higher percentage of white students (69 percent vs. 49 percent), a lower percentage of Hispanic students (11 percent vs. 27 percent), and roughly the same percentage of black (13 percent vs. 15 percent), Asian/Pacific Islander (2 percent vs. 5 percent), Native American (1 percent vs. 1 percent), and multi-racial (4 percent vs. 3 percent) students as compared with traditional public schools.”
The report’s scathing critique of online charter schools is grounded in a trio of reports by academic think tanks, jointly published in the fall of 2015 by Stanford CREDO, Mathematia Policy Research, and the Center for Reinventing Public Education.
Here is a summary of the concerns raised in the new report from the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools, the National Association of Charter School Authorizers, and 50 CAN: “Full-time virtual charter school students experience 180 fewer days of learning in math and 72 fewer days of learning in reading in comparison to traditional public school students.” “The mobility rates for students after they leave full-time virtual charter schools are extremely high…. (Students who leave full-time virtual charter schools have a more chaotic school experience after they leave full-time virtual charter schools than they did before they enrolled in such schools.)”
The new report’s authors recommend that states ought to beef up their regulations to ensure “minimum academic performance standards” and ought to have the leverage to close schools that are not serving their students. States ought to regulate authorizers to ensure that all the money they collect for oversight is being used for its intended purpose. Non-profits should not be beefing up their operating budgets with the funds intended to cover charter school oversight, and tiny local school districts should not be padding their own budgets by collecting state fees to sponsor huge charter schools that poorly serve children from other districts across the region.
Virtual charter schools do not have the same costs as brick and mortar schools, and states ought determine what it really costs for online schools to operate and additionally “require full-time virtual charter school operators to propose and justify a price-per-student in their charter school applications” based on the real costs of full-time virtual charter schools.
And finally, the new report recommends that as states establish valid costs for operating full-time virtual charter schools, they also consider a performance-based funding system that reimburses schools only for the students who are actively participating in the online school’s academic program. The report encourages states to consider paying for the students who stay in the schools and graduate: “As states develop policies in the specific area of performance-based funding, we recommend that they look to the emerging efforts in four states that are experimenting with completion-based funding systems: Florida, Minnesota, New Hampshire, and Utah.” While online schools ought to be open to all, schools ought also to be required to have some admissions requirements to ensure that parents are able sufficiently to oversee their child’s participation.
States also ought to be monitoring the performance of the authorizers themselves. And states ought to be setting limits on the size and expansion rates of these schools which sometimes enroll thousands of students. “When the large size of many full-time virtual charter schools is combined with research showing that full-time virtual charter school students have much weaker academic growth overall than traditional public school students, caution is justified.”
We will have to wait to see whether state legislators are moved by the advice of the pro-charter advocates to clean up the most notorious operators in the charter sector, the until-now untouchable online academies. After all, the same advice has been given before. The Annenberg Institute for School Reform released similar recommendations in 2014, and the Center for Popular Democracy has been releasing an annual demand for more accountability in the charter sector.
In Ohio, at least, it is apparent that academic and think tank reports have been unconvincing to legislators in the pocket of the for-profit charter operators who regularly make the necessary political contributions.