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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.

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Just like brick-and-mortar charter schools, online charter schools receive public education funding per each student they enroll. A recent New York Times investigation that focused specifically on K12 Inc.’s online schools revealed that the company “tries to squeeze profits from public school dollars by raising enrollment, increasing teacher workload and lowering standards” among other things:

"Despite lower operating costs, the online companies collect nearly as much taxpayer money in some states as brick-and-mortar charter schools. In Pennsylvania, about 30,000 students are enrolled in online schools at an average cost of about $10,000 per student. The state auditor general, Jack Wagner, said that is double or more what it costs the companies to educate those children online."

One of the more creative schemes the company employs to boost revenue is to set up shop in poverty-stricken school districts that could potentially, depending on the state, collect higher public education subsidies. The  Times references a school K12 recently established in Union County, Tennessee, where 25 percent of the population is plagued by poverty.

The Wall Street Journal estimates that school staff makes up 80 percent of education budgets, with an average ratio of 150 students per teacher (all classes combined). In comparison, a virtual teacher is expected to manage more than 250 students, leading to a far higher stack of papers to grade, students to monitor, and parents to coach. The  Times investigation found serious grievances by online teachers about grueling workloads and insufficient wages. 

Although cyberschool charters are subsidized by local and state education budgets, there is little understanding as to whether or not they actually save money. Yet state lawmakers continue to expand the cyberschool market. There’s no doubt that today’s high-tech tools are capable of enhancing the learning experience. But all this uncertainty mixed with the money-making schemes of the virtual charter industry should cause lawmakers, parents and students to pause, and at the very least, consider the consequences of educating future generations on computer screens, instead of in classrooms.

Rania Khalek is an associate writer for AlterNet. Follow her on Twitter  @RaniaKhalek.

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