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Both Sides Of The Education Debate Are United In Scorn For Online Charter Schools

In the wake of a scathing report on the performance of virtual schools, there is rare agreement between teachers unions and charter school advocates.

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In the wake of a scathing report on the failure of online charter schools, pro-charter groups are distancing themselves from the controversial industry, publicly condemning the performance and calling for a regulatory crackdown. Some are even suggesting that the schools should no longer be considered charter schools at all.

“I don’t know that the charter space is a perfect fit for online schools,” said Nina Rees, the president of the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools, a prominent national charter advocacy group. The poor performance of online schools revealed in the report was “alarming,” Rees told BuzzFeed News. “Our first reaction was that we have the power and means to shut some of these schools down, and we should.”

Thanks to the abysmal results in the report — and years of criticism and controversy that preceded it — virtual charter schools appear to have become so politically toxic that they have produced a rare consensus between two dueling factions of the education debate: charter school advocates and teachers unions. Unions have long been vocal opponents of the virtual charter industry, calling for tighter regulations and limits on schools’ growth.

“This data is disconcerting, and we’re not pleased, obviously,” said Marc Sternberg, director of elementary education for the Walton Family Foundation, a pro-charter group that funded the virtual charter study. “Online schools obviously need to rethink their model going forward, because this is not a flattering picture of students’ experiences and student outcomes.”

“We welcome anyone who is willing to join us in shining a light on the terrible practices and even worse results of virtual charter schools,” Randi Weingarten, the president of the American Federation of Teachers, told BuzzFeed News.

The study, conducted by Stanford's Center for Research on Education Outcomes, found that online schools have an “overwhelming negative impact” on students, setting them back 180 days of learning in math over the course of a school year that is, on average, 180.4 days long.

Long before the report was released in October, the virtual charter industry had drummed up controversy for poor academic results and high dropout rates, churning through students in a troubling cycle of enrollments and withdrawals. The sector is is dominated by for-profit companies, including K12 Inc., a publicly traded company, and Connections Academy, a division of the education giant Pearson. The schools have been criticized for recruiting widely — with advertising budgets that number in the millions — especially among poor and academically struggling students.

But condemnation of online schools is a departure for the charter advocacy movement, which has so far been largely silent on the subject.

“I believe there’s a schism forming between the for-profit virtual [charters] and the charter school establishment,” said Gary Miron, a fellow at the National Education Policy Center who has been a longtime critic of the industry. For years, Miron said, some charter advocates had expressed concern to him behind the scenes about the poor performance of online charters — but did not publicly condemn them.

Miron was “very surprised” to see the Walton Family Foundation had funded a study so deeply critical of online charters. Created by the politically conservative Sam Walton, the founder of Wal-Mart, the Walton foundation typically backs policies and research that support charter schools and their growth; it has funded some virtual schools in the past.

“Everything that's been out there has shown that these schools continue to perform poorly and still profit,” Miron said. “I think it’s getting harder and harder for the charter establishment to ignore.”

The Center on Reinventing Public Education, a policy and research group funded by the country's largest charter advocates, including the Gates Foundation, issued a report that called for tightened accountability measures and increased state oversight of online schools. Most state laws, the CRPE report said, lumped virtual charters in with their brick-and-mortar counterparts, failing to account for issues unique to virtual charters like funding and attendance.

Robin Lake, the report's author, suggested states should consider allowing virtual schools to turn away students who were not a good fit for online learning, something that is currently barred by charter law. That would mean that the schools, Lake said, would no longer be considered charter schools at all.

"Given the magnitude of the results that we saw," Lake said, "you could take them out of the charter school regulatory framework."

Jeff Kwitowski, a spokesperson for K12 Inc., said the company was opposed to policies allowing virtual charters to screen students. "What you're proposing is limiting parent choice," Kwitowski said, echoing one of the charter school sector's core arguments. "We provide equal access and opportunity and respect parent choice."

Both K12 and Connections Academy have pushed back against the results of the Walton-funded study, saying that the comparisons do not take into account the "unique circumstances" of virtual charter students — who often enter the school partway through the year, sometimes because they struggle with health or social issues and have a history of struggling academically in brick-and-mortar schools.

Mary Gifford, the senior vice president of policy at K12, said that the study was "incredibly validating in many respects" because it found that virtual charter students tended to come from low-income backgrounds and be academically troubled.

The Walton Foundation and the National Alliance for Public Charters have called for significant policy changes in light of what they said were revelations about online schools' academic performance. They want funding formulas changed to penalize virtual schools where students do not finish the year — some have turnover rates of more than 50% annually — and to make it easier for authorizers to shut down poorly performing virtual schools.

Todd Ziebarth, a senior vice president at the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools, said the group would be "substantially" rethinking its approach to virtual charters. In its annual ranking of states' charter-friendly policies, and in a model charter policy law, the organization has long encouraged blanket support for virtual schools — a policy that is likely to change, Ziebarth said.

"We're looking at questions of whether states need to govern virtual schools out of the charter concept," Ziebarth said. "It's been suggested that maybe states need to move these schools out of the charter space, so that they can have enrollment criteria."

As it stands, online charters pose a significant threat to the broader charter school movement, dragging down charter schools' academic results nationwide. Virtual schools serve disproportionately poor and academically challenged students, considered "at-risk" — a fact frequently cited by industry supporters as an explanation for their poor academic results.

But that is a stance at odds with some of the country's most successful charter schools, which advocate a philosophy of making "no excuses" for failing to educate struggling children and sometimes turn up test scores on equal footing with those of wealthy students.

Whitney Tilson, a hedge fund manager and prominent education reform advocate, has been a vocal critic of the leading provider of online virtual schools, K12 Inc. He bet publicly against the company's stock for several years, accusing K12 of intentionally recruiting "at-risk" students as a way to decrease accountability and explain away poor test scores.

Tilson is also on the board of KIPP, one of the country's largest charter networks and the pioneer of the "no excuses" model. KIPP schools enroll mostly poor students but consistently post test scores above the national average.

The Walton Foundation, the National Alliance, and other charter groups have so far said little about the for-profit companies that operate two-thirds of all online charter schools. K12, a public company, and Connections Academy, a division of the education giant Pearson, are by far the biggest players. Sternberg, of the Walton Family Foundation, said it was "neutral" about for-profits, preferring instead to focus on results. He said he didn't yet want to condemn individual providers, but work with them to improve their results.

"That said, if they had access to this data and did nothing about it, then we have a problem," Sternberg said.

But teachers unions and their allies claim for-profit companies bear much of the responsibility for the failures of virtual charters.

"The two companies driving most of the bad policies are the ones making the most money from virtual charters," said Weingarten, the AFT chief. The sector's most serious problem, she said, was the practice — echoed by Tilson's allegations — that schools "focus on recruiting as many students as possible, including those who are not a good fit for online learning."

For years, K12 Inc. spent huge portions of its budget, drawn mostly from taxpayer money, to advertise on children's channels like Nickelodeon and teen-friendly websites like VampireFreaks.com.

Miron, of the National Education Policy Center, said the results of for-profit and nonprofit online schools are equally "dismal." But he said the companies' extensive legal and lobbying efforts in many states — which they use to push through laws friendly to virtual charters and oppose attempts to shut down poorly performing schools — have stood in the way of reform.

Those extensive lobbying presences are likely to pose a problem for some of the efforts that the National Alliance for Public Charters hopes to push through in the wake of the report. Kwitowski, the spokesperson for K12, said the company did not support proposals to pay virtual charters only if their students had completed the school year, or based solely on students' academic performance. Virtual schools "should be paid like all other schools," Kwitowski said.

But both K12 and a spokesperson for Connections Academy said the companies supported more specialized laws and oversight measures for virtual schools, including some suggested in the Walton-funded report.

"Many of the recommendations are things we've been saying for a long time," said Mary Gifford, of K12. "We believe in these laws, and we've already helped shape them in several states."

Molly Hensley-Clancy is a business reporter for BuzzFeed News and is based in New York. She covers the intersection of business and education.

Contact Molly Hensley-Clancy at molly.hensley-clancy@buzzfeed.com.

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