Last week was the national charter schools conference. The event always spurs a wave of articles and opinion pieces on a variety of charter school and education reform issues. This year was no different. It makes for a lot of reading and tweeting.
One article in particular jumped out at me. Written by Travis Pillow, the very able reporter from RedefinED, the piece was titled, “Virtual Charters and the Profit Motive.” Travis is a smart and fair reporter, and I credit him for diving into complex issues and examining their nuances rather than simply painting every issue in black and white, which too many reporters do these days.
But this article, I thought, missed several key points about virtual schools, and some arguments were far too simplistic. First, the argument made by Jonathan Cetel of the Pennsylvania Campaign for Achievement Now that the “profit motive” drives a virtual school’s enrollment decision overlooks an important fact that went unmentioned: the nonprofit entity (charter board or school district) sets the enrollment policy, not the provider. Such policies must follow state and federal laws, but the nonprofit may also determine total number of students, number of new students, grades served, enrollment cutoff dates, and more – all of which are done (for virtual charters) in consultation with the charter school’s authorizer.
Second, there is no incentive – economic or academic – for virtual schools or their providers to try and recruit students who will drop out or not engage. The up-front costs to enroll and onboard students who end up leaving are high. These costs are often not recovered. And the suggestion by Amber Northern with Thomas B. Fordham Institute that virtual schools or providers are not giving parents and students information to help them gauge if these schools are a good fit is not accurate, at least as it pertains to K12, the nation’ largest online learning provider. Between information sessions, orientations, video guides, enrollment consultations, information packets, parent acknowledgement forms, and more, K12 aims to give parents all the information they need to make well-informed decisions. Enrolling in virtual school is not like buying a school book on Scholastic.com.
Further, students who are not achieving require additional instructional and support costs that are often not covered by the state’s per-pupil funding (and full-time virtual schools receive significantly less in total funding compared to traditional schools). K12 has made significant financial investments in its Family Academic Support Teams (FAST) to provide more interventions to both students and learning coaches (parents) who are struggling or not engaged.
Speaking of engagement, I think this is one of the biggest issues missed in the article. There is a sharp disagreement on enrollment in virtual schools. Some have called for creating policies that would prevent students from choosing virtual schools unless some pre-determination was made that they would to succeed. Although, nobody has been willing or able to define such criteria or how it would be applied. That, in my view, is a clear and unfair restriction on equal access to a public school and a violation of parents’ right to choose. The answer is not to create unfair enrollment restrictions, but rather to enable schools to create and enforce strong engagement policies. This is one of the proposals in K12’s Student-Centered Accountability policy proposals. These ideas have been gaining support from policymakers in several states.
Attempting to pre-judge student success is a dangerous path. There is no crystal ball. Many students who were failing academically in traditional schools found success in virtual schools. These students often overcome great personal or family challenges, too. The key is to enable public virtual schools to create and enforce strong engagement policies, instead of being forced to use unworkable truancy laws designed for brick-and-mortar schools. Give every parent the freedom to choose and every student the right to enroll with a set of clear expectations and school-adopted engagement policies. If they are unable or unwilling to follow these engagement policies, the school can withdraw the student. In this way, everyone has an equal and fair opportunity and nobody is denied access.
There is a vocal and influential segment in the charter community that adheres to a very narrow view of school choice. They believe choice should be restricted to charter schools alone, and only those with high state test scores. The problem with this limited view is that, well, it limits choice. Families can only choose these types of charter schools if they live near one. And since these schools are typically concentrated in urban areas, families who live in rural communities or outlying counties are usually out of luck. Further, many of these families don’t have the economic means to move or enroll in private schools. They simply have no choices. (As an aside, it doesn’t help that prominent voices in this segment of the charter school community oppose student scholarships, education savings accounts, tax credit programs, and other policies that would extend the reach of school choice to more families.)
For countless numbers of families, especially those in rural communities, virtual schools represent the only public school choice available (Check out these maps from Ohio, Georgia, Indiana, and Tennessee). Faced with such limited alternatives, parents will sometimes choose virtual schools not because they feel it’s the best option, but because it’s their only option, and – in the parent’s view – far better for their child than his or her assigned school. While that’s not ideal, it is a stubborn reality. Frankly, I’m not sure those in the charter community who are calling for arbitrary enrollment restrictions or outright prohibition of virtual schools have grappled with the reality that by doing so they are stripping away from a lot of families their one and only school choice option, and forcing children back into schools they fled. Maybe they’re okay with that, but as a Dad and long-time school choice advocate, I’m not.
To be clear, none of this is to try and excuse the academic challenges virtual schools face. We know the challenges and our educators are working every day to improve outcomes. However, like several other digital learning experts have said, virtual schools also face a measurement problem. That’s why K12 has been advocating for sound policy solutions like student engagement, annual progress toward graduation, growth models, mobility measurements, and other ideas outlined in our Student-Centered Accountability proposals.
I get that critics love to cry “profit motive,” but what we are really driven by are policy motives.