Cyber charters are failed experiment

Paula Herbart

If an experiment fails, the reasonable response is to end it and try something different. Not so regarding cyber charter schools, based on the actions of lawmakers who continue to fully fund these schools in the face of mounting evidence that they are a spectacular failure at improving academic achievement.

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. Snyder and the Legislature expanded the number of cyber charters.

Now, after years of experience and investment, we know that was a mistake.

In recent rankings, the Michigan Virtual Academy was at the 3rd percentile in academic performance — 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.

A study by the RAND Corp. and New York University released earlier this year showed that online-only schools tend to attract and harm our most vulnerable students. The study found that Ohio students with low test scores who attend cyber charter schools fell even further behind. High achieving students perform better, but still achieve lower results than they would have if they had enrolled in traditional schools.

In the “National Study of Online Charter Schools,” Stanford University found 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.

The small minority of students who succeed in cyber schools, according to the data, are self-motivated, with strong parental involvement. Unfortunately, for-profit companies like K-12, Inc., focus their marketing and aggressive recruitment efforts on students and families who do not fit that model, ultimately harming those students whom they claim to help.

Here in Michigan, legislators continue to ignore the poor academic achievement of cyber schools and pour millions into this failed experiment. Even Gov. Snyder recognized that funding for cyber charters needed to be scaled back when he proposed in last year’s education budget that they receive only 80 percent of normal per-pupil funding — acknowledging that cyber charters have a fraction of the overhead that traditional brick and mortar schools face.

Unfortunately, the Legislature rejected the governor’s proposal — but many from both parties in Lansing are hoping he pushes again for this change next year.

In the end, opposition to this change likely stems from money — specifically lobbying and campaign funds spent by groups like K-12 Inc. 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. For K-12 Inc., that was a wise investment, as laws were changed and enrollment soared at its cyber schools — as did their profits.

That could be a factor in a new piece of legislation, Senate Bill 574, which would give for-profit charter and cyber schools a cut of regional enhancement millages approved by voters to support local neighborhood schools. If this legislation passes, there is no guarantee that this funding would ever be used to help student achievement — it could go to already excessive corporate profits, shareholders and CEO salaries.

There is a place for online education. Public schools have used distance learning technology for years — especially in more rural and remote districts where courses like Advanced Placement, foreign languages and career-technical classes are not available. And blending online learning into a classroom setting is a proven success, unlike online-only cyber charter schools.

Policy makers should take note of the growing evidence of the failure of for-profit cyber charter schools and end this experiment — now.

Paula Herbart is president of the Michigan Education Association.



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 Paula Herbart.