Friday, September 27, 2013

No Tax Dollar Left Behind: Why Cyber Charters Continue to Thrive Despite Poor Results

In a recent post about the federal indictment of Nicholas Trombetta, the founder of Pennsylvania’s largest cyber school, Derek said that “the incentives for bad behavior, whether it be fraud or just low quality services, appear to run high in cyber schools.” Recently, the media, some school districts, and investors are seeing Derek’s point. The largely uncontrovered evidence is that children in full time virtual schools are more likely to fall behind in reading and math. Cyber student graduation rates are less than half of traditional schools. Industry leader K12 Inc., has been hit with a flurry of lawsuits in 2013 by investors for lying about its financial forecasts and about student outcomes. Apparently, the market is getting skittish about cyber charters. This week a hedge fund manager warned investors away from K12 Inc., telling Reuters that the school is overagressively recruiting students who are unsuited for online learing. But despite growing evidence that cyber charter schools are delivering abysmal academic outcomes, states continue to funnel billions of tax dollars to the nation’s 311 full time cyber schools. This week, Politico explores why the money is still flowing to virtual education as brick-and-mortar schools face austerity measures here and here.  

K12 Commercial
Tearful mom on commercial 

There has never been much proof offered or required that virtual schools are as good as traditional schools, so cyber schools are now going direct to consumers. K12 Inc. is pushing its products to moms on radio and late-night commericals on women-centered cable TV stations such as Lifetime and Oxygen. This commercial in  K12's fall campaign features a tearful mother who says that her son was "stressed out" in 5th grade and that his demeanor changed since starting K12. That ad also has an unidentified person saying, "That student has no way to fall through those cracks at all because the teacher and the parents are working together so hard together that they're going to succeed."

In full disclosure, I have been somewhat skeptical about the premise of full time online education for children. I wonder if most kids, especially kids with learning disabilities or behavior problems, can sit in front of a computer screen all day without social media, Candy Crush Saga, or Grand Theft Auto competing for their attention. I am willing to suspend my disbelief if there is proof that cyber schools work on a large scale, but that evidence has been scant. Evidence justifying skepticism, however, is abundant. Read more after the jump.

Screen Shot 2013-09-26 at 7.47.28 PMIn a May 2013 report, the National Education Policy Center (NEPC) found that “serious and systemic problems with the nation’s full-time cyber schools.” NEPC found the same evidence of low academic achievement, student dropout rates, and high churn rates (a cycle of enrollments and withdrawals that obscure drop out numbers) that Politico is reporting. Politico notes that cybers continue to thrive despite their cost and poor proficiency scores because states impose little oversight of them. In Colorado, Florida, Ohio, and Pennsylvania, all which have strong state support for cyber schools, the student proficiency numbers for math and reading have been terrible, and the on-time graduation rate is half of the national public school rate. Laws in those states, however, protect online schools from accountability and scrutiny. For example, Philadelphia’s cyber charters did not have to report their graduation rates for years, even though statewide graduation rates are available for other online schools. The only thing that slowed the approval of eight new charters in Pennsylvania in 2013 was the concurrent factors of Trombetta’s fraud, the failure of 90% of the cyber charters to meet student proficiency guidelines, and the state Auditor General’s finding that the state’s cyber charters were overpaid by $100 million a year. In Colorado, the evidence that K12’s other two schools in the state performed poorly did not stop K12 from getting a new charter grant because state law does not give regulators the power to refuse. In Texas, a virtual school that showed low performance two years ago found a new sponsor and won approval simply by declaring itself a new school. 

Ohio is a leader among states in the cyber charter movement; only Arizona has more full time students enrolled in e-schools. Ohio's biggest cyber charter program, the (amusingly named) Electronic Classroom of Tomorrow (ECOT), had some unusual statistics for 2008-2011 as complied here:

Number of 12th Graders

  • 2008-09: 1,212
  • 2009-10: 1,452

Number of 12th Grade Withdrawals (including dropouts)

  • 2008-09: 1,530
  • 2009-10: 1,907

It is not just ECOT’s name that is Orwellian, it is also its attendance numbers. In the 2009-10 school year, 455 more students withdrew than were actually enrolled. Whether that is student churning or another factor is unexplained because charter schools, including ECOT, are exempt from most reporting requirements under Ohio law. Nevertheless, even though cyber schools continue to have shocking graduation rates (ECOT's has been between 35 - 41%), Ohio lifted its moratorium on online schools in August, allowing three new e-schools to open this fall.

Cyber charter advocates say that online education works for kids in special circumstances (child actors, medical limitations, and temporary needs), but there are likely not enough of those kids to make the number of charters worth it. Cyber charters must attract significant numbers of students to make enough money for their investors. And they have: there are 275,000 full-time students nationwide in online elementary and secondary programs. Next week, we will be discussing more about where those kids are coming from.

Charters and Vouchers, K-12 | Permalink


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