Wednesday, January 04, 2012

Profits and Questions at Online Charter Schools

The NYT did a cover story a couple of weeks ago on for-profit online K-12 charter schools that made the sector look REALLY bad.  I have very conflicted views.  I have no doubt that online learning can work very well for some kids and, even if it doesn't work great, may well be the least-bad option for many other kids.  I also tend to like anything that creates options for parents and competition for the status quo.  Finally, I have no problem with for-profit schools.  All that said, I have GRAVE reservations about the sector as it's currently operating right now.  Based on many articles covering schools in many states, the industry – like the for-profit colleges – seems focused on growth and profits, which is leading to widespread shenanigans that screw kids – and taxpayers.  Anytime you have an industry in which the government (read: we taxpayers) are footing the bill, providing 90% or more of the money to for-profit companies (it's especially dangerous when the company is public, as there's tremendous pressure from analysts and investors to hit quarterly growth, margin and profit targets), then it seems to always lead to widespread abuses and, often, outright fraud (in addition to for-profit schools, the entire subprime lending industry and the healthcare industry come to mind).  Thus, it's imperative that there be careful regulation and oversight – which is, of course, fought tooth and nail by advocates of the industry, both for reasons of financial self-interest, but also because of political philosophy: the advocates tend to hate all government regulation and oversight, lessons from the housing bubble notwithstanding).

The business taps into a formidable coalition of private groups and officials promoting nontraditional forms of public education. The growth of for-profit online schools, one of the more overtly commercial segments of the school choice movement, is rooted in the theory that corporate efficiencies combined with the Internet can revolutionize public education, offering high quality at reduced cost.

The New York Times has spent several months examining this idea, focusing on K12 Inc. A look at the company's operations, based on interviews and a review of school finances and performance records, raises serious questions about whether K12 schools — and full-time online schools in general — benefit children or taxpayers, particularly as state education budgets are being slashed.

Instead, a portrait emerges of a company that tries to squeeze profits from public school dollars by raising enrollment, increasing teacher workload and lowering standards.

Current and former staff members of K12 Inc. schools say problems begin with intense recruitment efforts that fail to filter out students who are not suited for the program, which requires strong parental commitment and self-motivated students. Online schools typically are characterized by high rates of withdrawal.

Teachers have had to take on more and more students, relaxing rigor and achievement along the way, according to interviews. While teachers do not have the burden of a full day of classes, they field questions from families, monitor students' progress and review and grade schoolwork. Complaints about low pay and high class loads — with some high school teachers managing more than 250 students — have prompted a unionization battle at Agora, which has offices in Wayne, Pa.

A look at a forthcoming study by researchers at Western Michigan University and the National Education Policy Center shows that only a third of K12's schools achieved adequate yearly progress, the measurement mandated by federal No Child Left Behind legislation.

Profits and Questions at Online Charter Schools

Lance Murphey for The New York Times

Denita Alhammadi, center, works with her children, Romeo, left, and Yasmine, on their coursework for Tennessee Virtual Academy.

Published: December 12, 2011

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