Labor Voices: Online charter schools pose problems

Steven Cook

There is more evidence that for-profit charter schools are part of the problem, not the solution. This time, the focus is on “cyber” or online charter schools.

In “The National Study of Online Charter Schools,” Stanford University found students attending cyber charter schools lagged behind students in traditional public schools. Incredibly, the study also showed that cyber charter students received the equivalent of 180 fewer days of learning in math and 72 fewer days of instruction in reading than their peers in traditional schools.

In 2009, Michigan began a small pilot program with for-profit, cyber charters. In 2012, long before sufficient data was available to assess the pilot’s success, Gov. Rick Snyder and the Legislature expanded the number of cyber charters. This follows their pattern for other charter schools, where the cap on charters was lifted without proof that they increased student achievement.

Now, after years of experience and investment, charter schools have, with a few exceptions, proven to be a failed experiment. For-profit cyber charters take that failure to a whole new level.

Prior to the advent of cyber charters, online learning had been incorporated into traditional education. Public schools used “distance learning” technologies to increase academic options for students, especially in smaller, remote districts where courses like Advanced Placement, foreign languages and career-technical classes were not available.

However, study after study shows that sitting a student in front of a computer screen all day decreases student achievement. Prior to the Stanford research, a 2010 University of Colorado study found that only 30 percent of virtual schools run by for-profit companies met minimum progress standards under No Child Left Behind. In 2015, the National Education Policy Center showed only 41 percent of for-profit cybers were deemed “academically acceptable.” That same study showed the on-time graduation rate for cyber charter students was half the national average, while the student-to-teacher ratio was twice that of public schools.

In the latest state rankings, the Michigan Virtual Academy was at the 3rd percentile — 97 percent of Michigan schools performed better. Michigan Virtual Academy is operated by K-12 Inc., the largest player in the for-profit, cyber charter industry.

In 2012, the same year that Michigan and many other states expanded their cyber school programs, K-12 Inc. spent nearly $30 million on lobbying and marketing. The money spent on lobbying legislators to increase the number of cyber charters was a wise investment for K-12 Inc., as laws were changed and enrollment soared at its cyber schools.

But poor results have caused a backlash against K-12 Inc. In its aggressive recruitment, K-12 Inc. failed to screen out students not well suited for cyber learning, which requires strong parental commitment and self-motivated students. That has led to incredibly high turnover. In Pennsylvania, the state’s largest cyber charter ended its relationship with K-12 Inc. last year after it discovered the company altered attendance records and performance data in an attempt to hide high student turnover rates.

Last summer, K-12 Inc.’s Tennessee Virtual Academy was closed because the school was at the bottom of the state’s academic achievement rankings.

Even with poor academic performance, high student turnover, and unmanageable class sizes, K-12 Inc. is a success — if you measure success by profit margin. And profit, not student achievement, is the number one goal of cyber charter companies. It is important to note that cyber charters receive the same level of funding as traditional neighborhood schools. Unfortunately, a large portion of that funding goes to corporate profits, instead of educating students.

The growing evidence of the failure of cyber charter schools should be enough for Michigan to end its experiment with these schools and move to invest in education reforms that have proven effective.

Steven Cook is president of the Michigan Education Association.

Labor Voices

Labor Voices columns are written on a rotating basis by United Auto Workers President Dennis Williams, Teamsters President James Hoffa, Michigan AFL-CIO President Ron Bieber and Michigan Education Association President Steven Cook.