Are Virtual Charter Schools Really a Good Idea?

The massive growth of cyber charters has caused controversy across the country.

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Cyber charters give kids an alternative to traditional public education. (Photo Denver Post via Getty Images)

Vanessa Romo is a journalist and public radio reporter. Her work has aired on 'Morning Edition' and 'Marketplace.'

Watch enough cable television and you’re likely to see a handful of commercials aimed at students. 

In one, “Andrew” appears to be alone in a gym. He’s tall and lanky, wearing a white and red basketball uniform. The camera lingers on his unblemished face before he jogs away and easily makes a basket. 

In another 30-second ad, an unnamed slender brunette is dressed in what looks like boxer shorts and a tank top. She holds a laptop in her hands, flashes a bright white smile, then turns her attention to the computer screen. A crease of concentration on her forehead. 

Both teens look wholesome and healthy, like they’d fit right into Popularsville High School, USA. Yet, each one looks through the lens and says something along the lines of, “Regular high school just isn’t for me.” 

Their reasons vary—either the pace of the classwork is too slow or too fast, or the idea of going to school fills them with dread or boredom. Regardless, the students agree on one thing: Neither received enough individualized attention at his/her respective school.  

The commercials’ take-away, whether you’re at either end of the spectrum or somewhere in between: Online school might be the answer for you!

It’s a message that is definitely resonating with students and their parents. 

Enrollment at online charter schools—tuition-free schools that let students swap traditional “brick and mortar” classrooms for a computer and virtual lessons any time of the day or night, sometimes hundreds of miles away from a teacher—is growing exponentially. Online charters are becoming the fastest-growing alternative to traditional public schools.

According to the Colorado consulting firm Evergreen Education Group, in 2010-11, about 275,000 students in 40 states attended school online full-time. Projections indicate that number will increase by 43 percent by 2015. 

Arizona has the highest number of students enrolled in cyber schools, where enrollment has more than tripled to nearly 39,000 students since 2005. Online schools in Ohio have nearly doubled to more than 35,000 students. And nowhere is the appeal of virtual school more evident than in Pennsylvania, where the state has seen numbers break the 35,000 mark. Since 2010, there has been a 378 percent increase in enrollment in cyber charters.

“Just look at the demand and you’ll see, there is a huge need for these schools,” said Jessica Anderson, Executive Director of the California Pacific Charter Schools, which operates four sixth-through-12th-grade schools throughout the state. 

The appeal for students and their families, she says, is the flexibility that online schools provide. By redefining when and where teaching takes place, students can learn at their own pace and at any time. Lessons, lectures, and homework assignments—all online—are available 24-7. Email, video chatting, and the old-fashioned telephone keep kids in constant contact with their teachers. 

The emphasis on customizing curriculum is another major draw, especially for parents who complain that school districts, abiding by state and federal laws or  union regulations, are unresponsive to their needs.  

“We offer an alternative so [families] can work school into their living situation for kids from all walks of life,” said Anderson, including those who “can’t make it” in traditional schools, such as students who are bullied, have anxiety issues, or have children of their own. 

“A lot of the students who attend virtual schools are the ones that would have probably dropped out of normal high school,” said David Brown, executive director of the Accrediting Commission for Schools in the western states. 

While virtual school websites target “busy teens” who may be professional athletes or actors and simply cannot attend school during fixed hours, Brown said the majority of students attending virtual classes are desperately behind in academics. They benefit most from credit-recovery programs allowing them to graduate with their peers. 

“If they didn’t have the option of taking classes online and working at their own pace, they probably would never get a high school diploma.”

But such rapid growth has been controversial. 

Virtual schools syphon billions of tax dollars from traditional public schools, and funnel them to a handful of for-profit companies. The rise in online school enrollment and subsequent loss of revenue couldn’t have come at a worse time for public school districts, as they face devastating state and federal budget cuts.

Research also suggests students in online schools perform significantly worse than those in brick and mortar schools. 

Virginia-based K12 Inc., the largest virtual school operator in the country with over 100,000 students, consistently fails to meet measurements mandated by No Child Left Behind. On her blog, education historian Diane Ravitch cited a study reporting that “K12’s Ohio Virtual Academy has a four-year graduation rate of 30 percent. In Colorado, the Virtual Academy has a graduation rate of 12 percent.”  

An in-depth 2011 New York Times article about K12 said, “a portrait emerges of a company that tries to squeeze profits from public school dollars by raising enrollment, increasing teacher workload and lowering standards.”

That’s why, after multiple attempts by K12 to launch a series of “virtual academies” in the state, Illinois Governor Pat Quinn recently placed a year-long moratorium on all new online charter schools. In the meantime, the State Charter School Commission has until March 1, 2014 to evaluate online student performance and report on the costs associated with virtual charter schools. 

Several other states, including New Jersey, Florida, and Pennsylvania, have launched statewide audits of online school operators suspected of spending only about half of the per-pupil funding they receive from local school districts on education. This is in stark contrast with many of the nation’s school districts, which haven’t seen surpluses since before the recession. 

A 2012 NPR study found that “it’s possible to run an online school for about $3,600 per student. But Ohio pays online charter schools about $6,300 per student.”

By law, only nonprofit organizations can set up a charter, but these groups rarely possess the infrastructure to run a virtual program. So they turn to for-profit companies that do everything from organizing the teaching staff, curriculum, instructional tools, technology services, budgeting and financial reporting, student records management, and other administrative services.  

Education reform advocates are split on funding reform efforts, and many contend despite profits, virtual schooling saves taxpayers billions a year. 

“We should think about how we should fund these schools differently,” said Andrew Broy, the president of the Illinois Network of Charter Schools. But he continued, “banning cyber schools is the wrong message to send.”

It’s unproductive for school districts to dig in their heels in an attempt to stave off the groundswell of support for more online schools, he said. “They’re not going away and it’s unfair to deny the numbers of students who would benefit from a different opportunity.”

Instead, states should establish regulations governing how virtual charter schools are authorized and managed. 

“When charters were approved in [the mid-1990s], they didn’t contemplate online schools. Nobody knew this would happen, so we didn’t plan for it.”

Nearly 20 years later, it’s time we did, he said.

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