In our Feb. 22 issue, I wrote about the increased scrutiny on K12 Inc., a for-profit virtual charter schools operator that’s been the subject of damning media reports and studies in recent months. But in the time since that story was published, there have been several examples on the state level that K12 Inc. is far from the only for-profit schools operator under the microscope. Those looking into the microscope at the moment are politicians and education officials.
In Mississippi, lawmakers are debating a landmark bill that would allow charter schools throughout the state (as our Digital Education blog noted on Friday). But, as the Associated Press reports, a Senate education committee specifically removed virtual schools from the bill, and heard some fairly harsh criticism in the process.
From state Superintendent Tom Burnham:
“The data is going to tell you over and over that expecting young people to work independently, your rate of success is not going to be very good,” Burnham said, citing early struggles in the state’s own online program.
Then this dagger directed toward K12 Inc., from Nancy Loome, executive director of the Parents’ Campaign:
“We cannot afford to let someone in with such a history,” she said after the committee voted Tuesday. “They are the worst of the worst.”
The bill, sans virtual schools, passed the Senate. I’m told by Bob Davidson, counsel for the Senate education committee, there’s a decent chance the House, which gets the bill next, will put virtual schools back into the bill and hear another round of debates.
Moving south, Florida is considering a bill that would send tax dollars typically reserved for public school construction and maintenance costs to charter schools. The Miami Herald reported last week the larger charter school managers, some of which are for-profit companies that contract to nonprofit entities, would receive millions, even though they already possess millions in existing cash assets.
The money would come out of the school district’s budget. Those districts typically use that money to pay off bond debt, the Herald reports. The charter school community there said the money is necessary for the schools to stay open and expand.
The bill would deepen the taxpayer support of charter schools, a consistent point of criticism for for-profit charter operators. In Ohio, a judge recently ruled that White Hat Management, a for-profit charter school operator, is a “public official” because most of its operational costs are paid for by public dollars. As a result, the company must disclose more of its financial records. (White Hat-managed schools have a checkered history; some have closed and four of six new schools the company attempted to open were not sponsored last week by the state department of education.)
We’re not done yet! The Georgia State Senate passed, with some vocal opposition, a bill that would require students to earn credit through online courses in order to graduate, similar to a controversial bill passed in Idaho. It now goes on to the House.
As some states set their guidelines for charter school operators, others will begin to see recently enacted laws in action. Charter school operators in Iowa are currently competing to enroll students for the following school year, as the March 1 open-enrollment deadline approaches (outlined here by the Waterloo-Cedar Falls Courier). Herndon, Va.-based K12 Inc. and Pearson-owned Connections Academy, based in Baltimore, are opening new virtual schools there this fall.
Along with Florida, Idaho, Indiana, Oregon, and Tennessee, Iowa recently passed a law making online schooling more accessible. Due to the recent scrutiny of online schools—most notably a critical New York Times article and a National Education Policy Center report that cited adequate yearly progress well below traditional schools—some of those states are taking second looks at online schools. (As are districts. The Milwaukee Journal Sentinel reported today that the Waukesha School District, in Wisconsin, is allowing its contract with K12 Inc. for a virtual school there to expire, in order to start its own virtual school.)
Despite the scrutiny and the politics surrounding these companies, there is evidence that their schools do work. For K12 Inc., at least, their schools in Florida, Ohio, and most-recently Arkansas have yielded positive academic performance. Whether the positive data can counteract the negative data—dismal results in Pennsylvania and the NEPC report’s revelation that just 30 percent of virtual schools nationwide met adequate yearly progress—could be determined in some of the state-level legislative sessions. On Thursday, the California Charter Schools Association released a report showing that virtual schools are more likely to be among the lowest-performing charter schools in the state than brick-and-mortar charter schools.
But in general there is not a lot of data on the effectiveness of online charter schools and, in some states, their brick-and-mortar counterparts. Which is likely why there’s so much volatility in statehouses, in community meetings and even on Wall Street, in how to account for them.