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Do You REALLY Think Online Charter Schools are the Answer?

Many of the so-called "reformers" and many of their allies among Republican governors and legislators seem to - after all, that is why they have been pushing this particular approach for a number years.

If you have any interest in this topic, I am going to strongly urge you to read a just-released policy brief from the National Education Policy Center.  Titled Understanding and Improving Full-Time Virtual Schools, and has a subtitle which reads "A Study of Student Characteristics, School Finance, and School Performance in Schools Operated by K12 Inc.: The authors are Gary Miron, a professor at Western Michigan University, and Jessica L. Urschel, a doctoral student at the University.  K12 Inc. is the nation's largest operator of online charter schools, and is controversial enough that New Jersey, whose governor Chris Christie has been actively involved in undermining public education in that state, just postponed acting on a request from K12 to open a charter in that state.

I have not had time to thoroughly examine the report, as I was offline for most of yesterday.  It is formally being present today at the annual meeting of the American Association of School Administrators, where Dr. Miron will debate Dr. Susan Patrick, president and CEO of the International Association for K–12 Online Learning.

Below the fold I am going to offer a few of the key points of the study, assisted in part by a press release from Kevin Welnar who is the Director of NEPC and whom some here heard when he was on an education panel at NN11 in Minneapolis.


According to Miron, K12 Inc. schools generally operate on less public revenue, but they have considerable cost savings. They devote minimal or no resources to facilities, operations, and transportation. These schools also have more students per teacher and pay less for teacher salaries and benefits than brick-and-mortar schools.

Thus the lower overhead costs allow an opportunity for a substantial profit margin.  This is important, because K12 is a for-profit entity, founded by William Bennett, who was Secretary of Education under Ronald Reagan, and Michael Milken, who went to prison for his financial shenanigans at Drexel Burnham but somehow managed to keep a substantial portion of his ill-gotten gains.

Turning to the report itself, some key information from the Executive Summary:

Analysis of K12 Student Characteristics

  • K12 Inc. virtual schools enroll approximately the same percentages of black students but substantially more white students and fewer Hispanic students relative to public schools in the states in which the company operates. Because K12 schools generally enroll students without regard to school district boundaries, such same-state comparisons are the most useful.
  • On average, 39.9% of K12 students qualify for free or reduced-price lunch, compared with 47.2% for the same-state comparison group.
  • K12 virtual schools enroll a slightly smaller proportion of students with disabilities than schools in their states and in the nation as a whole (9.4% for K12 schools, 11.5% for same-state comparisons, and 13.1% in the nation).
  • Students classified as English language learners are significantly under-represented in K12 schools; on average the K12 schools enroll 0.3% ELL students compared with 13.8% in the same-state comparison group and 9.6% in the nation.
  • Most K12 schools serve students from grades Kindergarten to 12; however, K12’s enrollment is greatest in the middle school grades. Enrollment decreases sharply for the high school grades.

The Executive Summary also provides a great deal of information about the operational costs and expenditure of K12 and the performance of its students, which usually falls behind that of the parallel public schools from which it draws.  While it is true that K12 receives less per student than the parallel public school, this is mor than offset by the much higher student-teacher ration:  in this New York Times piece from last year provides some information from some other parallel on-line charter organizations, with teacher-student ratios of 35-1 and up, depending upon the amount of money received per students from public funding.  High school teachers at some of these "schools" handled as many as 250 students -  here I note that I taught 6 rather than the usual 5 sections at a high school, and in my worst year I had only 192 students.  The Times article, which used some information from this report before it was released, is also well worth reading.  I quote the following from there:

Some teachers at K12 schools said they felt pressured to pass students who did little work. Teachers have also questioned why some students who did no class work were allowed to remain on school rosters, potentially allowing the company to continue receiving public money for them. State auditors found that the K12-run Colorado Virtual Academy counted about 120 students for state reimbursement whose enrollment could not be verified or who did not meet Colorado residency requirements. Some had never logged in.

“What we’re talking about here is the financialization of public education,” said Alex Molnar, a research professor at the University of Colorado Boulder School of Education who is affiliated with the education policy center. “These folks are fundamentally trying to do to public education what the banks did with home mortgages.”

Read that last sentence again, carefully.

What is happening with this move to for-profit online charters will be as destructive of public education and real learning as what happened to our economy as a result of the securitization and related activities of the mortgage market that came close to collapse the economy of much of the developed world, and whose impact is still having horrendous effects around the world on the ability of governments from national to local levels to continue to provide the public services that undergirded the very wealth of those economies.

The report can be freely downloaded.  I was asked to help draw attention to it.

The material in the brief has been through a rigorous peer-review process.   It relies on publicly available information, including some from the Federal government and other studies that have been done on this material.

Let me end with the three paragraphs of the conclusion, after which I will offer a few remarks of my own.

With the rapid expansion of full-time virtual schools, and with the outsized political involvement of key companies that aim to extend market share, the world of online learning is becoming increasingly controversial. Aside from proclamations of politicians and advocates, claims that full-time virtual school are working are not substantiated by empirical evidence. This report reviewed an array of publicly available performance indicators for schools operated by K12 Inc. and all of these indicators indicate weak performance.

While we share the excitement of new technologies and the potential these have to improve communication, teacher effectiveness, and learning, we remain convinced that policymakers should embrace these schools only after piloting and thoroughly vetting this new model for schooling.

Although this report is modest in scope, we hope that the findings will encourage policymakers to act more cautiously in the political arena, where companies such as K12 Inc. apparently exert considerable influence. Also, we hope this study will cause researchers, educators, and others to look more closely at full-time virtual schools. To truly understand productivity, one needs sound evidence of outcomes and an accurate understanding of inputs such as characteristics of students entering the school, and public monies received and spent by the school.83 Though this report focuses only on a single provider of virtual schools, it is our hope that its description of evidence from diverse public sources on inputs and outcomes has helped to further our understanding of the potential and limits of full-time virtual schools. We also hope this report can inform policies that will improve this new model of schooling and help to ensure that full-time virtual schools better serve students and the public school system as a whole.

I have no trouble with exploring alternative ways of doing education.  I believe these can be achieved without the profit motive that seems to be behind so much of what is unfortunately given the label of "reform."  It is change - we are moving from seeing education as a public good that should be provided to benefit society as a whole, keeping the relationship between costs and benefits independent of a profit motive, to a model in which the main drivers are ideology (including the suppose magic of the free market system) and greed.  Increasingly the various aspects of "reform" involve spending money on things not always essential to real learning but which carry potential windfall profits to outside groups whose interest is primarily financial -  these include testing companies, hardware and software manufactures, curriculum and training providers, consultants, as well as those whose involvement comes from an interest in making money and is often not accompanied by any real experience in public school educational settings.  Because certain students cost more to teach -  those with disabilities, those from impoverished backgrounds, those still learning English - operators of for-profit schools often do their best not to accept such students into their schools.  There is little oversight of many of the institutions, and even some that are supposedly non-profit pay ridiculous high salaries to their administrators and operators when one considers the numbers of students they serve and compare those salaries to administrators in public school systems.  Thus even though officially non-profit those involved with many charters are effectively transferring public funds to their own pockets without incurring the operational costs imposed upon public schools.

No other high performing nation in the world is taking this approach.  And don't kid yourself -  when we adjust for degree of poverty American public schools perform as well as those in any advanced nation, but we rank 34th (out of 35) in degree of poverty among nations participating in international comparisons such as PISA.

This examination of the nation's largest on-line charter operator is important because it demonstrates the lack of evidence that the move to online charters improves the educational outcomes of the students who participate in them, even by the very flawed approach of relying upon scores on standardized tests.

If you have any interest in education, I urge you to examine this report.

If you are in a state considering expansion of online charters, try to get those involved in making the decisions, including state legislatures, and those who will be affected, including parent groups, and those whose responsibility it is to inform and help interpret for the rest of us (the media which far too often does a horrible job), to read and understand this report.

Thanks for reading this post.

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Kenneth J. Bernstein

Kenneth J. Bernstein is now proudly 64 years young, teacher in DC metro area, Quaker liberal - and still passionate about learning with his students (http:/...