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Education

Virtual Charter Schools Are Booming, Despite A Checkered Reputation

A mother works from home while her son attends school remotely in an arranged photograph taken in Miami in September.
A mother works from home while her son attends school remotely in an arranged photograph taken in Miami in September.

Parent Mandii Brower vividly remembers what it was like when her kids' school in Yukon, Okla., switched to distance learning in the spring: "It was just like, we never learned with our teachers again. They never checked on things again." She says "school" consisted of just a few short daily assignments.

"I [couldn't] see my kids' education going that way."

So this fall, Brower enrolled her two daughters in Epic Charter Schools, a virtual program that allows students to study online, at their own pace, with pre-recorded lessons and one-on-one teacher support. For Brower, the difference has been night and day. She says Epic "[has] it down pat, and they know how to help families."

Brower wasn't the only parent to give the Oklahoma-based virtual school a try this year. Since last spring, Epic enrollment has grown to be double the size of the state's largest public school district.

In fact, across the country, fully virtual K-12 charter schools have experienced a pandemic-induced "surge," as one sector observer put it. K12 Inc., one of the biggest in the business, has reported a 57% enrollment increase, taking it up to 195,000 students; Connections Academy, another heavy hitter, has reported a 41% jump, and the list goes on.

Virtual charter schools have been around for a couple of decades. In that time, they've been both relatively niche and highly controversial. Free to families but paid for by taxpayers, they enrolled about 300,000 full-time students in the 2017-18 school year, according to the National Education Policy Center. The market has been dominated by publicly-traded corporations, including K12 Inc. and Pearson, which runs Connections Academy. Together those two entities enroll about half of the nation's virtual charter school students.

... they continue to grow in the face of all the negative news, in the face of all the reports that demonstrate that they have terrible outcomes, and in the face of all the scandalous reports that investigative journalists continue to dig up.

Gary Miron, at Western Michigan University, has been doing annual watchdog reports on the virtual charter sector since 2012. He says, "Nothing changes — except that they continue to grow in the face of all the negative news, in the face of all the reports that demonstrate that they have terrible outcomes, and in the face of all the scandalous reports that investigative journalists continue to dig up."

As Miron explains, corporate-run virtual schools have consistently been dogged by complaints about high student turnover, low student performance, fraud and waste. Low test scores, abysmal graduation rates and disputes about headcount have led these schools to be either shut down or placed at risk of closure in several states. Groups representing charter schools, like the National Association of Charter School Authorizers, have publicly questioned "whether virtual schools should be included in the charter school model at all," and called for stepped-up oversight and funding rules.

Oklahoma's Epic scandal

Epic Charter Schools in Oklahoma is what Miron calls "a wannabe big guy," and "one of the most scandal-ridden." Case in point: A recent investigation by Oklahoma's state auditor accused Epic of, among other things, funnelling millions of public dollars into the pockets of its co-founders and misusing funds meant for student instruction.

Epic has denied most of the allegations. But they've run out of goodwill with regulators like Joy Hofmeister, Oklahoma's state superintendent of public instruction. "We have a pattern of practice that is unacceptable and has to be changed," Hofmeister says.

"Epic needs to be held accountable. All public schools need to be held accountable."

Now, a special counsel is investigating possible criminal wrongdoing. And the state school board is trying to claw back $11.2 million in public funding.

But because of its business structure, investigating Epic has been a challenge. The state says Epic has withheld financial records from investigators, while the school argues its for-profit management company doesn't have to share that information — Epic attorney Bill Hickman says it never has in the past.

"And nobody told us that was wrong. Nobody told us we couldn't do that," he said at a recent school board meeting.

Bumps in the road

Epic isn't the only virtual charter company to stumble publicly this school year. Miami-Dade County Public Schools, the nation's fourth largest district, awarded K12 Inc. a $15.3 million no-bid contract to power its virtual learning platform this fall, before school buildings reopened there. But there were so many technical glitches that the district fired K12 Inc. after only a couple of weeks. School records provided to WLRN in Miami show thousands of students left the district during that period.

"We have had our bumps in the road. We've made some mistakes," says Kevin Chavous, K12 Inc.'s president of academics, policy and schools.

The persistent problems with the "corporate-model" virtual charters, as critics like Gary Miron see it, come down to their business model and incentives. He says they spend their money on marketing to parents and lobbying lawmakers, not on education.

We have had our bumps in the road. We've made some mistakes.

For example, Miron has documented ratios of as many as 100 students per teacher. He says a special education teacher at one school "showed me a screenshot from her computer to show how many kids that she has. And I just said, 'Hey, that's impossible. That's illegal. You can't have that many — states regulate it.' And she said, 'Yep, and I'm quitting.' "

When asked about their average teacher-student ratio, K12 Inc. provided NPR not with a number, but with a statement that read in part: "Ratios are determined based on content area, grade levels, and specific student needs, and the educator-to-student ratios in K12-powered schools is similar to levels at traditional brick and mortar schools." Connections Academy told NPR, "On average, 'class size' is typically between 30-50."

Virtual charter schools have countered the critics by saying that they meet families' desire for choice, and that's been even more true during the pandemic. Epic Charter Schools co-founder Ben Harris told NPR, "I'm glad we are here to make sure they don't have to choose between a school they don't think is safe for their child and their child having a quality education. No parent should have to make that choice."

Chavous says families are choosing virtual charters because in the "areas that are most important in terms of administering a robust, meaningful, quality based online learning experience for families, we know what we're doing." He says parents prefer them for their customized online curriculum and teachers who are specifically trained to use it — many public school districts pivoting to remote learning can't say the same.

He also says that virtual charter students have tended to underperform because they are lower-performing to begin with. "Only 12% of our first-time-enrolled K-12 students are at grade level," Chavous explains. "That's been our historical track."

However, research has shown that virtual charter school students, including at K12 Inc., underperform even when their previous learning level is taken into account.

The future of virtual learning

Unprecedented numbers of students have experienced virtual learning last spring and this fall, and some proportion of them will doubtless stick with it going forward. This may include students with ADHD, social anxiety or students who are victims of bullying and discrimination and prefer learning from home.

Chavous says that the parents signing up for K12 Inc. right now are highly educated and more engaged compared to their previous population of families. "Let me be frank: To keep them, we'd better be on our game." He says they've stepped up efforts with things like virtual extracurricular activities and community building among parents.

Meanwhile, Miron is clear that he does believe in virtual learning as a model. In fact, he says, there's a better alternative to for-profit charters out there — and it's also growing. He points to state-run "virtual academies" that exist in about half of states. They offer millions of public school students, especially high schoolers, the chance to take individual courses online. These academies help students who need to retake a course to graduate, or allow a rural high school to offer a foreign language or an AP course that they otherwise would not be able to offer. Many have full-time online programs as well, and even hybrid models with both in-person and online learning days.

For example, Florida Virtual School, which is state run and has been around since 1997, has both full-time and class-by-class offerings. The school says its students actually do better than the state average on end-of-course exams and Advanced Placement exams. And during the pandemic, its in-state, full-time enrollment has nearly doubled, to 11,000 students.

"I think [families are] choosing us because we've done this for a long time," says Courtney Calfee of Florida Virtual School.

Given the increased parent experience with online learning, it's possible that public school districts will be moved to offer more quality full-time and hybrid options, even beyond the pandemic. But without big changes in state regulations and oversight, whether companies like Epic or K12 Inc. are moved to change their stripes is a whole other question.

Copyright 2020 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.