- From the Editorial Board Virtual Charter Schools:Where Did All The Children Go?
Over the last decade, parents and students seeking a more flexible and individualized educational experience have increasingly turned to virtual public charter schools, the newest trend in an age old U.S. debate about school choice (O’Hanlon, 2012). Though the school choice movement emanates from what Alan Wolfe (2009) noted as “the right end of the political spectrum” (p. 34), school choice (and all of its more recent mutations) has enjoyed bipartisan nurturance, rooted in a collective commitment to a consumer choice ideology and supported by a steady stream of model bills manufactured by assertive school choice lobbyists. Most notably, the Virtual Public Schools Act (2011), a model bill introduced by the conservative free market collective called the American Legislative Exchange Council, ensured that cyber public schools in Tennessee would be “provided equitable treatment and resources as any other public school” (Underwood & Mead, 2012). The model bill has since been passed in numerous states. As a result virtual charter schools typically receive the same spending per pupil as a brick and mortar charter, despite not having any expenditure for food service, facilities, or transportation (Saul, 2011). It would be a mistake to chalk virtual charter schools up as just another public education fad. According to a 2014 National Educational Policy Center report, the United States is host to over 400 virtual charter schools (Molnar et al., 2014). Though still a relatively small number of schools, the rate of this ten-year growth is extraordinary. For an estimated 300,000 students seeking an alternative pathway, these schools afford an opportunity to earn accreditation from the comfort (or confines) of home (Samuelsohn, 2013). With guaranteed and ample public funding, virtual charter schools are staged to become ubiquitous features in our public school landscape.
Virtual public charter schools stem from a politically charged and economically motivated ideology- one that has inextricably tied pupils to purse strings. The two most prominent corporations running virtual charters, K12 and Connections Academy (recently acquired by Pearson Inc.), reported happy news in last year’s annual stock reports. K12 earned 948 million dollars in revenue (K12, 2015, p. 3), while the share price for Pearson, which owns Connections Academy, rose over 32% (Moreno, 2014). Connections Academy and K12 are not merely virtual schools benefiting from increased enrollment numbers; they are also wheelhouses for the rampant outsourcing of educational auxiliary services, providing curriculum packages and online courseware for brick and mortar schools. Like all lucrative business models, they help shape a need and then they fill that need. Despite recent media attention, which questions “aggressive student recruitment” (Rabin-Havt, 2015) and implies the misuse of tax dollars for marketing purposes (Smith, 2013), for K12, the $26.5 million spent on advertising in 2010 served their corporate mission well (Saul, 2011).
However, what’s good for investors is not necessarily so for the most immediate stakeholders: students. Promotional materials herald this service as highly individualized [End Page 109] and “expert vetted,” but recent empirical evidence paints a much grimmer portrait: dysfunctional schools, huge student attrition rates, dismal test scores, overworked teachers, and reports of an abounding cheating culture (Barbour & Reeves, 2009). An analysis of school performance revealed that only 27% of the nation’s virtual public charters met Adequate Yearly Growth in the 2013–2014 school year (Molnar et al., 2014). For example, Hubbard and Mitchell (2011) found that over half of the Colorado students enrolled in virtual charters either transferred to a different school or stopped attending school entirely within a one-year time frame. Attrition rates are not only a Colorado concern; despite receiving over 4.1 million dollars for student tuition in 2014, the Massachusetts Virtual Academy at Greenfied (owned by K12), ranked amongst the lowest performing schools in the state (Allen, 2013). A 2013 Politico investigation revealed that cyber charter schools in Ohio, Pennsylvania and New York precipitated student attrition rates sometimes three times the number of their equivalent brick and mortar counterparts (Samuelsohn, 2013).
Within this messy intersection between profit and schooling there are huge consequences for students and their families, which warrant our careful consideration. Virtual charter...