Why Is Public Education Being Outsourced to Online Charter Schools?
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.
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.
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.