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Why Is Public Education Being Outsourced to Online Charter Schools?

Virtual charter schools are educating kids on computer screens, instead of in classrooms.

Virtual charter schools, which offer classes online instead of in a classroom, have become the fastest-growing segment of the charter school industry. And while data on their effectiveness is scarce, state legislators across the country are passing laws to expand cyber schools at the behest of privatization advocates and online education companies at an alarming rate, with little regulation. 

The Associated Press  reports that more than 200,000 kindergarten to 12th grade students are enrolled in full-time “virtual charter schools” in at least 40 states. That number soars to  two million schoolchildren nationwide when one takes into account students who are enrolled in at least one course.

The last year alone has seen virtual schools dramatically expand across the country. According to the  AP, “Ohio lifted a moratorium on new ‘e-schools,’ and Utah passed a ‘virtual voucher’ law,” which lets high school kids determine which classes they prefer to take online and at school. Another roundup by the Wall Street Journal includes similar moves in Virginia, which signed off on 13 new cyberschools. Florida now mandates that high school students enroll in one online course at a minimum and Idaho has moved to implement a requirement for at least two online courses. Georgia offers an app that lets high-schoolers take classes on their smartphones, reports the Journal.

Follow the Money Trail 

Five for-profit companies control the cyberschool market: K12 Inc., Connections Academy, Educational Options, Apex Learning, and Plato. These virtual charter school providers supply course material, keep track of student achievement and hire educators.   

K12 Inc., based in Herndon, Virginia, is the country’s largest cyberschool provider. In just four years, K12’s full-time enrollment has more than  doubled to 94,000 school kids.  

In an  investigation of virtual charter school companies published in the Nation, Lee Fang discovered a massive but largely quiet campaign by corporate front-groups to push policies in state legislatures that benefit “education-technology companies.” According to Fang, cyberschool advocates have piggy-backed on the school privatization movement, which has relentlessly lobbied for publicly funded charter schools and school vouchers under the guise of school choice. Fang writes:

"In 2010, K12 Inc. spent lavishly in key races across the country, including a last-minute donation of $25,000 to Idahoans for Choice in Education, a political action committee supporting Tom Luna, a self-styled Tea Party school superintendent running for re-election. Since 2004, K12 Inc. alone has spent nearly $500,000 in state-level direct campaign contributions, according to the National Institute on Money in State Politics. David Brennan, Chairman of White Hat Management, became the second-biggest Ohio GOP donor, with more than $4.2 million in contributions in the past decade."

It doesn’t stop there. The  New York Times reports that since 2007, K12 spent another $681,000 on lobbying in Pennsylvania, where the company makes nearly 10 percent of its revenue.  

Unsurprisingly, the cyberschool movement is getting help from the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC), a conservative group that backs many privatization efforts. 

ALEC lent its services to cyberschools in 2005, designing the "Virtual Public Schools Act.” Lee Fang reports that an executive named Mickey Revenauge at Connections Learning, America’s second largest virtual school company, co-chairs ALEC’s “education policy-writing department.” 

Are Virtual Charters Effective? 

While online charter school expansion may benefit the bottom line of education-tech companies, the same cannot be said for students, teachers or taxpayers.   

The latest study released January 6 by the National Education Policy Center (NEPC) and conducted by researchers at Western Michigan University found that just 27 percent of cyberschool companies achieved the “adequate yearly progress” or AYP benchmarks required by No Child Left Behind as opposed to 48 percent of traditional “brick-and-mortar” schools. 

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