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Analysis: Charter Groups Call for Reforms of Underperforming Virtual Schools

By Matt Barnum | June 17, 2016

Three groups that support charter schools are calling for stringent new regulations on virtual charter schools — highlighting sharp tensions in the school choice movement.
A new report released Thursday by the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools (NAPCS), the National Association of Charter School Authorizers (NACSA), and the advocacy group 50CAN, reflects recent studies showing that students in online charters learn far less on average then their peers in traditional public schools. Their poor performance has made headlines over the past year, as has the financial malfeasance of some online operators, creating a political headache for supporters of charter schools generally.
The report lays out a series of recommendations meant to curb the online sector’s growth and improve achievement, including calls for tougher accountability, limits on enrollment, funding based on cost and performance, and an improved oversight structure.
In interviews, report authors were remarkably blunt about online school outcomes as well as the political challenges facing their recommendations.
Greg Richmond, head of NACSA, pointed to “years of evidence accumulating about how poorly these [online charter] schools are performing.”
The report elevates philosophical and political tensions that have informed debates about charter schools. For instance, the recommendations would restrict the ability of families to choose low-performing virtual charters. “It is increasingly clear that full-time virtual charter schools are not a good fit for many children,” the report states, “and that solely relying on self-selection in the enrollment process isn’t working.”
The use of “self-selection” — rather than the synonymous “choice” — reflects a subtle shift from the usual rhetoric. Providing more “school choice” has long been central to arguments justifying charter school expansion.
Indeed, Connections Academy, a large chain of online schools used that very language in its skeptical response to the recommendations:  “We welcome a transparent and informed conversation about virtual charter schools, but today’s report offers no new analysis to further the discussion … Connections will continue to fight for the equal rights of virtual school families to choose a school that best meets the needs of their children.”
Todd Ziebarth, senior vice president of NAPCS, said choice is critical but shouldn’t be unfettered, “While the market dynamics and competitive dynamic [are] important … at the end of the day it’s not enough — it’s sort of a necessary but insufficient thing.”
But the swift criticism from Connections Academy, as well as K12, another online network of schools, is a reminder of the political pushback that will presumably meet any effort to create more regulations, in part because charter operators spend significantly on lobbying in many states.
Former Tennessee Commissioner of Education Kevin Huffman wrote for The 74 about his long and ultimately unsuccessful battle against the online charter lobby and its political supporters to close a virtual school with very low academic growth. The 74 has also reported on opposition to efforts that would improve Ohio’s widely criticized charter sector, particularly from for-profit online operators. Implementation of a reform law passed last year by the state has already encountered political hurdles.
When asked if he was worried that the political influence of online operators would limit proposed policy changes, Richmond said, “To say that I worry about it would imply that I’m not sure whether it’s happening. And we know it’s happening. … When NACSA has gone to states to advocate for clear criteria in statutes for charter schools generally … the virtual schools have often been in the capitol opposing our recommendations.”
Meanwhile, a motley coalition of critics — including school reform skeptics, some school choice supporters, and virtual schools themselves — have argued that test scores are poor measures of student performance and should have little if any role in school accountability systems. In fact, there is some evidence that standardized test scores are associated with long-term outcomes, but they’re unlikely to capture all or most of a school’s impact on students.
“Test scores are one measure; they’re not the only measure,” Richmond said. “When NASCA works with authorizers, we never suggest they only use one measure.”
Designing a holistic accountability system is a large and difficult effort, however — one many states are working on in response to the new federal education law but with little clear evidence about what it should look like.
Perhaps the most surprising aspect of the report is its recommendation that states “study” the possibility of limiting online charter enrollment to students likely to thrive in virtual environments. “Student self-motivation and parental support can make or break a student’s success in full-time virtual charter schools in ways unique to the full-time virtual model,” the paper states.
This is a politically and technically dicey proposition, however, given that charters have long faced the criticism that they “cream” more motivated families and students (charter advocates respond that their schools are public and open to all students). It’s also not clear what criteria an online school could use that wouldn’t be seen as discriminatory.
Ziebarth and Richmond acknowledged these issues and even went one step further, separately floating the possibility of removing online schools from the charter school structure altogether. “I don’t know how to implement [enrollment criteria] within the charter model … If we can figure something out that is fair and appropriate that could be good; if we can’t, some people are saying maybe this just doesn’t belong under the charter school model,” said Richmond.
It’s not clear precisely what what this would mean, though. In theory, a state might ban online charter while encouraging districts to operate virtual schools for certain students.
In an acknowledgement of the impact on the larger movement, NAPCS President Nina Rees suggested that online charters give other charters a bad name: “It’s not fair to the charter school community to have these anomalies in the mix … In a lot of states the performance of the virtual charter schools are considered outliers when you compare them to the average brick and mortar school.”
Still, Richmond believes that despite the concerns raised in the report, there is a need for online schooling.
“There is no question that there are students in our communities, in our states, for whom this is a good option … Kids who are bullied, kids with health problems, a small number of kids who are serious athletes — there is no question that those children exist. I don’t know how many of them there are, but whether it’s 100 of them or 10,000 of them, they count too, and we ought to be doing what we can to make a good school available to them.”
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