Sunday, September 29, 2013

Cyber schools flunk, but tax money keeps flowing

Stephanie Simon of Politico wrote a two-part series on K12 this week that is truly an outstanding piece of journalism. Most stunningly, she got K12 Executive Chairman Nathaniel Davis to admit that the company’s Scantron test results, which K12 peddles to shareholders, politicians, regulators, etc., can’t be relied on:

The company boasts that Scantron results show its students outpace the national norm for yearly growth in reading and match it in math. When the Securities and Exchange Commission questioned K12 about its academic results earlier this year, K12 again pointed to the Scantron data as proof of its success.

Yet those data are “not as accurate as they could be,” K12 Executive Chairman Nathaniel Davis acknowledged in an interview.

The Scantron tests are optional for K12 students, and about 30 percent decline to take them. That means the company has been comparing a self-selected group of K12 students to the national norm, which isn’t appropriate, Davis said.

The company, he said, needs to find “a more honest assessment” of student progress.

Simon also got Susan Patrick, president of the International Association for K-12 Online Learning, an industry trade group, to admit:

“Unless we address these quality issues that have emerged quite profoundly,” the poor performance of cyber schools will “put the entire industry of education innovation at risk. We need to have an honest discussion about this.”

She also documents how K12 and other online charters spend big money to buy off politicians:

Yet when researchers from the National Education Policy Center at the University of Colorado Boulder evaluated academic achievement at every one of the more than 300 online schools in the U.S., they found “serious and systemic” problems throughout the industry. There has been little effort by legislators to rein them in, said Gary Miron, a co-author of the report. The NEPC receives funding from unions that generally oppose online schools, but even strong proponents of digital learning say there’s been a disturbing lack of movement to close failing cyber schools.

“There has not been the political will to do so,” said John Bailey, executive director of Digital Learning Now!, an advocacy group.

Critics say it’s no mystery why the political will to close virtual schools is weak. Parents whose kids do thrive in the schools stage rallies and email blitzes when they perceive a threat. The online industry also works very effectively to secure political support.

K12, for instance, last year contracted with 45 lobbyists in state capitols across the country and donated $625,000 to politicians of both parties, ballot initiatives and political associations such as the Republican Governors Association, according to records compiled by the National Institute on Money in State Politics and the Center for Responsive Politics.

K12 spokesman Jeff Kwitowski calls the donation levels “extremely small” compared with the huge sums spent by other advocacy groups, such as teachers unions. Last year alone, the National Education Association and its affiliates spent tens of millions on political campaigns.

Among individual donors backing cyber schools, few have been as generous as William Lager, who founded Ohio’s largest virtual school, ECOT — and who runs both the company that manages the school and the company that sells the school its online curriculum.

Lager has contributed $387,000 to Republican politicians and political organizing committees just in the past year and a half, a period in which the state began to calculate academic growth for all students in cyber schools — and found ECOT sorely lacking. On the most recent state report card, ECOT got an F on every measure except one, for which it earned a D.


Cyber schools flunk, but tax money keeps flowing

By STEPHANIE SIMON | Politico, 9/25/13 11:14 PM EDT

Taxpayers send nearly $2 billion a year to cyber schools that let students from kindergarten through 12th grade receive a free public education entirely online.

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