Fighting Cyber Charters On Their Turf

Type: Article
Topics: School Administrator Magazine, Technology & AI

December 01, 2016

School districts bring a better-quality alternative to students seeking their education online.

School enrollment is basically zero-sum. When students in traditional public schools leave for the virtual attractions of an online education, the taxpayer-supplied funding that supports their education goes with them. The public school district is left with most or all of the same costs, from teacher salaries and textbooks to buses and football fields, while the virtual charter school gets a new revenue stream without the costs of actually operating classrooms or campuses.

Though distance or remote learning is an old concept, completely virtual charter schools first appeared in the mid-1990s. Forty-two states and the District of Columbia allow charter schools; 35 states and D.C. permit full-time virtual versions as well.

A view of the back of student with headphones on working on a desktop computer
In the Saddle Mountain Unified School District in Tonopah, Ariz., students use designated classrooms to work on various online courses that otherwise could not be offered in a rural school. (Photo by Joel Wisser.)

According to the National Education Policy Center, a think tank based at the University of Colorado at Boulder, private for-profit organizations operate 44.4 percent of full-time virtual charter schools but account for 74.4 percent of all enrollment. They tend to be large, averaging 1,027 students compared to 286 students for nonprofit virtual schools and 266 for public virtual schools.

According to the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools, the virtual schools typically serve a higher percentage of white students (69 percent) than traditional public schools (49 percent), roughly the same percentage for black students (13 percent vs. 15 percent) and a lower percentage of Hispanic students (11 percent to 27 percent).

A Negative Portrayal

 Virtual schools, like charters in general, tout a different and/or purportedly better educational experience. The evidence suggests otherwise. In October 2015, three different organizations — the Center for Reinventing Public Education, Mathematica Policy Research and the Center for Research on Education Outcomes, or CREDO — all published examinations of the state of full-time virtual charter schools. Their conclusions were not encouraging:

 More than two-thirds of online charter schools had weaker overall academic growth than traditional brick-and-mortar schools;

 Online charter students earned the equivalent of 180 fewer days of learning in math and 72 fewer days of learning in reading than traditional students. (In a conference call with reporters at the report’s release, CREDO director Mack Raymond said student math gains at online charter schools were so minimal that it was “literally as though the student did not go to school for the entire year”); and

Online schools tended to have high student-to-teacher ratios, low student engagement and high student mobility.

Two educators work with two students who are working independently at computer workstations
At Pennsylvania’s Freedom Area High School, Principal William Deal (left) and Superintendent Jeffrey Fuller talk to students in the Cyber Center about their online courses. Others complete coursework remotely. (Photo by Hannah Shumsky.)

A New York Times story published earlier this year described online schools as the “new dropout factories.” For every 100 online students who graduate on time, 80 do not, according to federal data reported by the newspaper.

The average graduation rate at online schools is 40 percent, according to America’s Promise Alliance, a national advocacy group. For traditional public schools nationally, the rate is 82 percent.

A Flummoxed State

The personal toll on the lives of students enrolled in these questionable schools is disturbingly visible to public school leaders.

Eric Gordon, chief executive officer of the Cleveland Metropolitan School District in Ohio, recalls mentoring an at-risk student who was enrolled in online classes from a cyber charter school. He was shocked by what he observed.

“A lot of these schools advertise themselves as ideal for highly motivated students seeking an extraordinary education,” says Gordon, who has worked in public school administration for about 15 years. “But I was horrified by the student’s online curriculum and the whole process. Most students who enroll in cyber charters are reluctant or at-risk learners struggling in traditional schools. They think online might be the solution but, in fact, it’s exactly what they don’t need. There’s less structure, less guidance, less accountability. In the end, they’re just dropping out without dropping out.”

Despite broad-based, consistently negative findings, virtual -charter schools remain popular. That dichotomy may be fueled, in part, by reasons that have nothing to do with academics, says Charisse Gulosino, assistant professor in the Department of Leadership at the University of Memphis and co-author of the National Education Policy Center’s 2016 report on virtual schools. She says parents often are attracted by the much-touted flexibility or cache of online learning without necessarily or fully understanding what’s required to be successful. They may be concerned about campus issues like safety, drugs, negative peer pressure or bullying and believe a virtual education circumvents these problems.

“For some parents, it doesn’t matter whether or not these (virtual) schools increase the achievement levels of their children,” Gulosino says.

Nonetheless, she and colleagues recommended in their report that policymakers take a breath, then slow or stop the growth in virtual schools “until the reasons for their relatively poor performance have been identified and addressed.”

That’s not bad advice, but it offers no real guidance to school leaders such as Gordon in Cleveland, who must deal with the challenges of cyber schools now or suffer the consequences.

Fiscal Impact

The Freedom Area School District, located in Beaver County in western Pennsylvania, is a rural K-12 district of three campuses and 1,400 students. Next door is Seneca Valley School District, a 7,600-student system in suburban Pittsburgh, and the Pennsylvania Cyber Charter School, headquartered in the Beaver County borough of Midland. It boasts an enrollment of more than 10,000 students.

Pennsylvania Cyber Charter launched its operations in 2000. Like all cyber charters, its students are not restricted to a defined geographic area but are drawn from anywhere in the state, including the Freedom Area and Seneca schools.

“When cyber charter schools first started, there was immediate pushback from traditional districts,” says Jeffrey Fuller, Freedom Area’s superintendent. “How dare they! Taking our students. Our money.”

Freedom Area receives approximately $10,000 in state tuition for each student living within its boundaries and attending its three campuses. If that student leaves for Pennsylvania Cyber, the charter school receives the full funding.

Currently, Fuller says 67 students who could attend Freedom Area public schools are enrolled in outside cyber charter schools. That’s not a large number, but it translates to roughly $800,000 in lost funding. “We’re not a big district. That’s 5 percent of our taxes going out the door. It’s wrong.”

It’s wrong for a lot of reasons, Fuller says, citing the disparity in academic performance and the fact virtual schools don’t have the same infrastructure costs or obligations. For example, Pennsylvania state law obligates public schools to provide services, such as sports and other extracurricular activities, to all eligible students, even if they attend a virtual school. The latter are not required to compensate the former for those costs.

“That extra money is why cyber schools can constantly advertise and promote themselves. They’re using our money,” Fuller says.

But he says he’s not angry. “There’s no time to jump up and down and be mad. I’m the first to support the idea that parents must make the best educational choice for their kids — and sometimes that is a nontraditional school,” Fuller adds. “It’s incumbent upon me to make sure my district is offering the best possible programs, to make their decision to pull their children out as difficult as possible.”

A Hybrid Future

So Freedom Area is fighting back, byte by byte. Not long after Pennsylvania Cyber emerged, the school district began offering its own online courses. Public school educators in the region soon realized there was strength and power in numbers and began sharing and providing online services with each other. Freedom Area currently contracts with Seneca for its online coursework — at a less-expensive rate than commercial -vendors and with more flexibility. Freedom district teachers provide support and oversee the program.

Fuller thinks this hybrid of brick-and-mortar classrooms and laptops-at-home education is the future (at least in part) of public schooling.

“I don’t see traditional districts being replaced,” he says. “There are real benefits and advantages to teachers and students being in the same place, face-to-face. But online learning allows us to offer things we couldn’t in a traditional setting. In our schools, we have time and space to offer just one world language — Spanish — but online we can offer French and Japanese too. We can provide advanced level courses that are not possible in-house.”

It’s a widely shared opinion. A Thomas B. Fordham Institute study of virtual schools in Ohio earlier this year concluded that online education cannot replace the traditional face-to-face experience. “I think packaging (virtual education) as a school might be setting us up for failure,” study author June Ahn, a professor at New York University, told The Hechinger Report. “School is a lot more than just putting content up online.”

Districts Respond

In the view of Susan Patrick, chief executive officer of the International Association for K-12 Online Learning, most families want their children to attend traditional schools. She believes virtual school enrollment nationwide probably maxes out at less than 10 percent of the student population. The most recent federal numbers estimate fewer than 200,000 students are enrolled in virtual charter schools.

Public school administrators are working hard to shrink that number. Across the country, they are following the example of Freedom Area by creating their own online curricula (often for reasons that go beyond the challenge of virtual charters, such as credit remediation). The most recent national data, published in 2011 by the U.S. Department of Education, estimates more than half of all public school districts have students enrolled in online classes, with percentages rising with age group.

More recently, the Evergreen Education Group estimated in 2014 that 75 percent of public school districts used digital learning or digital content resources, or offered online courses.

In Cleveland, CEO Gordon has created the CMSD Virtual Academy, which offers scores of diverse online courses and electives across the K-12 spectrum through nonprofit Lincoln Learning Solutions, but with active oversight and engagement of district teachers and administrators. Most online students take a full load of five classes, but district officials say students can take fewer if they simply are short some graduation requirements or need additional help because they’re falling behind.

In the Solanco School District in Quarryville, Pa., Superintendent Brian Bliss says his district’s cyber program allows students with diverse needs to transition back and forth between online classes and district classrooms as needed.

“Quite often online courses are for credit recovery or to offer specialized programs that wouldn’t be available on campus, such as French at a school with no French language teachers,” says Mark Joraanstad, who left the Saddle Mountain, Ariz., Unified School District superintendency this year to become executive director of Arizona School Administrators. “There are some very robust online programs now being offered, especially at big districts.”

Saddle Mountain, with an enrollment of 1,500, has an agreement with the nearby 32,000-student Paradise Valley Unified School District (which serves portions of Phoenix) that allows some students to take advanced courses or enrichment electives online.

“When online schools first appeared, it was quite wild,” -Joraanstad says. “There were a lot of them, but the market is starting to correct itself. Some virtual charters are improving, others are going away. Online schools are part of the future and a part of life. These days, it’s all about blended learning, adapting what we do to best educate students today and tomorrow.”


Scott LaFee
About the Author

Scott LaFee is a health sciences writer at the University of California, San Diego.

   Scott LaFee

Additional Resources

Where to find information on evaluating the merits of a virtual program for K-12 students and for building your own program of online courses in a school district.

 Consortium for School Networking, or COSN, A national resource on school district technology use.

 Florida Department of Education, The nation’s largest state virtual school; each school district also operates online schools, programs and/or courses for their students.

 International Association for K-12 Online Learning, or INACOL, A nonprofit with an array of resources and events relating to blended and online learning.

 ISTE, A national organization providing guidance on digital age learning.

 Virtual High School,  A 20-year-old non-profit delivering standards-based, student-centered online courses through a collaborative arrangement involving member schools.