Charter Advocates Demand that States Reform Failing Online Academies

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.

Mathematica, CRPE, and CREDO Condemn Online Charter Schools in Three-Agency Report

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.