We need to quickly regain the moral high ground and cut the online charter school cancer out of our movement
Kev huffQUADRUPLE STOP THE PRESSES!!! (I think I’ve never gone beyond triple, so I’m breaking new ground!)
I just posted an article on Seeking Alpha, An Analysis of K12 and Why It Is My Largest Short Position (attached and posted at: http://seekingalpha.com/article/1707192-an-analysis-of-k12-and-why-it-is-my-largest-short-position), which is a follow-up to my presentation that I sent around last week (an updated version of it is posted at www.tilsonfunds.com/K12-Tilson-9-17-13.pdf; I’ve added 13 slides to what I presented last Tuesday, with lots of interesting new material).
As I hoped, by publicizing my analysis and critique of K12, a number of people who know the company well have contacted me. Suffice it to say that when I gave my presentation last Tuesday, I was 99% certain that my assessment of K12 was correct, but after hearing from them, I’m now 100% certain.
Their overall feedback can be summarized as:
- Everything in my presentation is correct, but:
- K12’s bad acts and the harm it’s doing to students are even worse than I documented; and
- K12 and its online peers are able to continue their bad acts thanks in part to education reformers (myself included), who have remained silent as the online charter school sector has completely run amok, resulting in an ongoing (and rapidly growing) educational catastrophe for hundreds of thousands of kids every year (K12 alone had average student enrollments of 117,563 as of June 30th, making it more than twice the size of KIPP).
(Note that my critique is not of all for-profit charter schools or regular schools that incorporate some online learning programs like Khan Academy. Rather, it’s of 100% online charter schools, in which students are supposedly learning by sitting at home all day in front of a computer, interacting with teachers almost exclusively online.)
Here are quotes from people I’ve spoken with just this week:
- "I met with Ron Packard years ago and could tell his motivations had little to do with kids, everything to do with manipulating state regulation to protect his interests. I started digging into the results, the business model, the organization, and discovered much of what you lay out in detail in your presentation. As I said, they are terrible and epitomize everything that we should be working against in the ed reform movement."
- “You’re totally right about K12 and, on top of it, they lie all the time. It’s naïve to trust anything they say. So I’m not sure if their schools can be fixed, at least under the company’s current leadership. There’s no such thing as a successful online school in the entire country. To be sure, it works well for some students, but I’d guess only 15% of the ones cyber charters are currently serving.”
- "I know the company very well and your presentation rings true. They have a well-deserved terrible reputation."
I’m embarrassed by my own ignorance and silence on this issue, so I’m determined to make up for this by using my bully pulpit to get the word out to my fellow reformers that we need to immediately end our collective silence for two reasons:
- It is morally unconscionable and rank hypocrisy to say we care about kids and fight for every child to get a high-quality education – yet fail to recognize and act when bad actors in our movement lure more and more kids into schools to which they are completely ill-suited, where students are almost certain to fail and suffer a major educational setback; and
- K12 and its ilk are giving the entire reform movement a bad name. They have cleverly positioned themselves as champions of charter schools, parental choice, and blended learning, with the result that their terrible schools and various bad acts give our enemies endless fodder to attack us and drag us all down (Ravitch dedicated an entire chapter in her new book to attacking online charter schools – which, of course, she used to attack all charter schools and all for-profit education).
Consider Pennsylvania, which has more students (35,000) in online charter schools than any other state. As I show on pages 51-52 of my presentation, the academic results of these schools are dismal. CREDO concluded: "In both reading and math, all 8 cyber schools perform significantly worse than their traditional public school counterparts." 35,000 mostly failing kids is a big number, which rivals some of the biggest districts in the state. Yet do we reformers turn a blind eye to 35,000 failing kids in a regular district? Of course not! So why are we doing so in the online charter schools “district”?
If you favor charter schools, giving parents more choices, and using technology to give kids a better education at a lower cost (as I do), you should be fighting (as I am) to get rid of BAD charter schools, BAD choices for parents, and BAD use of technology to miseducate kids.
So why isn’t this happening? Why have reformers been so silent? Think there are six answers:
- Ignorance. I’ve had my finger on the pulse of the education reform movement for more than a decade – but, as I’ve come to realize, not the entire movement. I hang out with the nonprofit/TFA/KIPP types and know very few people in the for-profit ed sector. Among most people like me, online charter schools aren’t even on the radar screen. (This is also perhaps in part due to the fact that the online charter sector was very small until quite recently.)
- Genuine belief (mostly rooted in ideology). Many folks love the concept of online charter schools for various reasons: they’re nonunion, aren’t controlled by “The Blob”, are lower cost, further parental choice, and the technology is very cool (the wave of the future!). And K12 is very clever in spinning all negative reports to make it seem like they’re isolated incidents and/or politically motivated. So if you’re predisposed to believe the online charter school story (and don’t look hard at the evidence), it’s easy to believe.
- They seem like friends. At first glance, K12 champions the same things we champion (expansion of, more funding for, and less red tape for charter schools, parental choice, blended learning, etc.), plus the unions really hate them, so they must be our friends, right?
- Political necessity. We reformers are almost always outmanned, outspent, and outgunned at least 10:1 by the unions and their lobbyists in the school boards, city councils, and state legislatures around the country. So when K12 shows up with a lot of money and an army of lobbyists and offers to join us in our fight for better funding for charters, etc. (and against various poison pills the unions are always trying to get passed), are we really going to say no because the charter school bill we like has a little part of it that allows online charters unchecked growth, little or no accountability, and more funding?
- Concern about the movement. K12 has been so clever in wrapping themselves in the major reform issues noted above that many reformers worry that if we attack K12, our enemies will use this to hurt other, good aspects of our movement.
- Money. K12 has been very clever in cultivating reformers and reform organizations, offering a lot of money, conference sponsorships, etc. You know the old saying: “Whose bread I eat, his song I sing.” It’s exactly what the teachers unions do to win support from groups like the NAACP.
In my view, taking this money from K12 is blood money. To any of my friends who are working with and/or taking money from K12, let me put it to you this way: if Randi Weingarten offered you a similar amount of money, lobbying support, etc. in exchange for selling out at-risk kids trapped in failing schools, would you take it? Of course not – you’d be outraged that she’d think you were so unprincipled to even dare to make such an offer. So why are you doing exactly this with K12, selling out over 100,000 kids, an increasing number of whom are at-risk, most of whom are getting a worse education than even the worst bricks-and-mortar school???
Folks, better late than never, we need to quickly regain the moral high ground and cut this cancer out of our movement.