Public Virtual Schools: Education,
Profit, and Influence
More than 200,000 American students in kindergarten through high school are currently being cyber-educated full time with no brick-and-mortar component. Thirty states and the District of Columbia have at least one full-time online school. These virtual schools are charter schools, governed by the individual state, by a local school board or by an independent commission, which is often formed by parents and/or teachers. The schools may utilize for-profit industry giants like K-12, Inc. (K12) or Connections Education for all or portions of their curriculum, teachers, record keeping, testing, and school operations.
Virtual education has the potential to be a positive force offering educational choices unfettered by zip code to parents and students, and by offering relief to states and districts desperately needing to cut costs. But virtual schools also face challenges, including development of sound funding criteria, delineation of geographic boundaries, establishment of control by responsible entities, clarity on teacher workloads, accurate measurement of student progress, and guarding against improper influence by those who will gain financially from the creation of schools. As is always the case with major reform, the virtual school movement calls for close monitoring.
Virtual schools exist for a variety of reasons and serve a variety of student populations. Some students and parents are seeking an individualized course of homeschool study for educational, philosophical, or religious reasons, while others want to escape an unsafe or failing urban school. Students use a computer to learn subjects ranging from alphabet recognition to geography to literary analysis to calculus. They may receive support and guidance from an online teacher, a parent or guardian or some combination of those. Homework and course grading can be done by a computer, a parent, or an online teacher. Some programs offer students and teachers interaction via telephone and some have an occasional face-to-face component, either live or via computer.
Virtual schools, like other public charter schools, are paid for with public money, and because in many cases taxpayer money is essentially being paid to private companies, some fight the virtual school movement because they oppose any seeming privatization of a public institution.
Per-pupil funding for virtual schools is currently based on brick-and-mortar school expenditures, with actual educational costs having no place in virtual school funding formulas. States usually allocate fewer dollars per student for virtual learning but the actual costs of virtual schooling remain mysterious. It is generally understood that virtual schools operate more cheaply than their brick-and-mortar counterparts.
The largest for-profit virtual education provider, K12, does not open its books to provide actual costs of educating students. Founded by a former banker, a former U.S. Secretary of Education, and Michael Milken, the convicted “junk bond king,” K12 is expected to generate $680 million in revenue in 2012. Over 80% of this comes from the “managed public school segment,” which is K12’s term for virtual public schools. In a December 2011 article about virtual schools, The New York Times said of K12: “a portrait emerges of a company that tries to squeeze profits from public school dollars by raising enrollment, increasing teacher workload and lowering standards.”
Another complication of virtual education is that geographic boundaries can be murky. In a high-profile example of this issue, former Senator Santorum was criticized when it was revealed that his children were enrolled in a Pennsylvania virtual school from 2001-2004, while the family lived in the Washington, D.C. suburb of Leesburg, Virginia. Because Pennsylvania taxpayers funded his children’s education while he served as that state’s Senator but lived elsewhere, the Pennsylvania school district made an effort to recover $100,000 from Sen. Santorum.
Teachers who educate students online are paid less than their counterparts in traditional settings. Evidence suggests that some virtual teachers are swamped with students. High school teachers at K12-operated Agora Virtual Academy in Pennsylvania reportedly served as many as 270 students. (NY Times, 12-12-2011) Also, a whistleblower provided internal K12 documents to State Impact Florida and the Florida Center for Investigative Reporting that indicated teacher-to-student ratios are sometimes as high as 257:1.
Are virtual schools successful? The surprising answer is that nobody knows. The available information is limited, often flawed and sometimes misinterpreted.
A study by the National Education Policy Center, which is associated with the University of Colorado at Boulder, found that “only 27.4 percent of full-time virtual charter schools run by for-profit companies achieved adequate yearly progress under the federal No Child Left Behind Act in the 2010-11 school year, compared with 51.4 percent of brick-and-mortar charter schools.” However, the report did not take into account the newness of the cyber schools or their swelling enrollment, both of which negatively impact testing; and cyber schools using some face-to-face component were lumped in with brick-and-mortar schools, further skewing results. (Education Week, 03-12-2012) Furthermore, the National Education Policy Center is partially funded by union monies from the National Education Association and others fundamentally opposed to school reform.
A Stanford University group, the Center for Research on Education Outcomes, which tracked students in eight virtual schools in Pennsylvania, and a Western Michigan University study of schools run by K12, both found virtual school students lagging behind their brick-and-mortar counterparts.
Responding to the New York Times (12-12-2011) profile of its practices and results, K12 representatives offered cogent reasons why students at its Agora Cyber Charter School failed to meet testing standards. K12 stated that “seventy percent of Agora’s students are classified ‘at risk,'” and that “Agora is helping to address some of the state’s most difficult educational challenges,” challenges that many “students bring with them as a result of the failings of the schools they have left.” This analysis applies to more than just the Agora schools because most virtual schools are new and growing quickly, and virtual schooling is frequently a student’s “school of last resort.”
Supporters of virtual classrooms often use a 2009 Department of Education study which shows virtual schools offered a slight advantage over traditional classroom instruction. Those results, however, were mainly focused on college students, and there is little supporting evidence for elementary or secondary students. Furthermore, the 2009 report looked at a blended program with a face-to-face component.
Questionable relationships sometimes exist between profit-driven enterprises, commissions that supervise virtual schools, and the politicians who legislate their existence into being.
In discussions of the rationale and methodology for virtual charter school creation in states, the acronym “ALEC” surfaces repeatedly. What is ALEC? It is the American Legislative Exchange Council, which liberal journalist Bill Moyers calls “the most influential corporate-funded political force you’ve never heard of.” Moyers continues, “ALEC presents itself as a ‘nonpartisan public-private partnership.’ But behind that mantra lies a vast network of corporate lobbying and political action aimed to increase corporate profits at public expense without public knowledge.”
ALEC has 200 legislative members, mainly Republicans. There are also corporate members, including K12, that pay from $7,000 to $25,000 a year to gain access to and work alongside the lawmakers. To be on ALEC’s Education Task Force, which created the template law called “The Virtual Public Schools Act,” a corporation pays an additional $2,500 a year. A founder of Connections Education, the second-largest virtual school corporate provider and a subsidiary of education publishing giant Pearson, was the co-chair of ALEC’s Education Task Force until it exited mid-year in 2012, along with many other corporations, after widespread criticism of the body.
A report in the Portland Press Herald on September 2, 2012 details how ALEC influenced Maine education policy makers and the governor, and why virtual education has been put on hold in the state. In October of 2011, Maine’s education commissioner, Stephen Bowen, travelled to San Francisco to attend a summit convened by Governor Jeb Bush’s Foundation for Excellence in Education. The summit presented the “merits of full-time virtual public schools.” Bush’s Digital Learning Now! initiative receives funding from Connections Education and K12. At the summit Bowen met Bush’s top education aide, veteran lobbyist Patricia Levesque, on whom he would come to rely heavily as he drafted specific education policy directives for Maine.
In February of 2012 Maine Governor Paul LePage issued an executive order calling on the Maine Department of Education to enact the “Ten Elements of High Quality Digital Learning,” which were based on the ALEC-created template, the “Ten Elements of High Quality Digital Learning.”
Connections Education and K12 both applied to the Maine charter school commission for permission to start virtual schools in Maine. On June 6, 2012, the commissioners tabled both applications, “expressing concern both about the proposed schools’ level of independence from the for-profit online education companies from which they would contract their services, and the all-volunteer commission’s competence to evaluate their proposals in the time available.” (Portland Press Herald, 9-2-2012)
In a further effort to become influential in Maine, “K12 contributed $19,000 to the Republican Governors Association’s Maine PAC, which made independent expenditures to help Governor LePage win election.” (Portland Press Herald, 9-2-2012)
K12 currently operates or provides curricula to virtual public schools in all but 14 states. In partnership with ALEC, K12 will be trying to make it an even 50 in the near future.
Balancing profit motives with corporate expertise, and ensuring that corporate and legislative cooperation does not descend into cronyism, are two of the challenges faced by those states attempting to create successful virtual schools. A Center for Public Education report concluded: “The bottom line is that in many cases we do not know how much it actually costs to provide virtual education, nor how many students the money is funding nor exactly how the money will be spent.”
Add to this that there is often no clear measure of student success in virtual schools and it becomes clear that managing virtual education remains a challenge. While there are virtual schools that are successfully educating and serving the needs of students, oversight of their creation, operation, and funding must be strident. But this relatively new and burgeoning form of education offers the potential for states to save money, and for students and parents to exercise educational choice.