Virtual School Meanderings

March 22, 2022

GAO Report – Department of Education Should Help States Address Student Testing Issues and Financial Risks Associated with Virtual Schools , Particularly Virtual Charter Schools

I’ll be honest and say that this report flew under the radar for me until I say it referenced in a news article.  A day later, or maybe later that same day, a colleague of mine forwarded it around and we got on a bit of a discussion about the report – and specifically why it had gone under the radar for the most part.  That framing got me thinking and I wanted to take a closer look at the report and suggest why it hasn’t been a big deal.

The report is titled Department of Education Should Help States Address Student Testing Issues and Financial Risks Associated with Virtual Schools , Particularly Virtual Charter Schools, and is summarized as:

Why GAO Did This Study

Enrollment in virtual schools has increased faster than enrollment in other types of public schools in recent years. This trend was accelerated by COVID-19, which prompted an increase in distance learning. Virtual charter schools account for about 70 percent of students enrolled in virtual schools.

GAO was asked to review virtual charter school operations and oversight. This report examines (1) how virtual charter schools provide student instruction, (2) how virtual schools’ academic proficiency and participation rates on state tests compare to other school types, and (3) the extent to which virtual charter schools’ operations present challenges for state and federal oversight.

GAO interviewed state and charter authorizer officials from four states collectively serving over 50 percent of all virtual charter school students in 2019-2020. GAO analyzed federal data on virtual charter school enrollment and academic outcomes; reviewed a nationally representative sample of virtual charter school websites; reviewed school financial information; and interviewed federal and school officials.

What GAO Recommends

GAO is recommending that Education examine lower testing participation rates in virtual public schools, and ensure states report comparable attendance information for public schools in a state as well as accurate information on charter schools’ contracts with management organizations. Education agreed with these recommendations.

What GAO Found

Virtual charter schools—public charter schools that operate entirely or mostly online—largely depend on self-paced, asynchronous (accessed at any time) instruction and often rely on parents to act as instructors, according to GAO’s review of a nationally representative sample of virtual charter school websites and interviews with school officials. Officials told GAO that families may choose these schools partly for these reasons, but students can struggle with the level of independence and parents can find the time commitment overwhelming.

Virtual charter schools had significantly lower proficiency rates on states tests compared to other school types. For example, the average math proficiency rate for virtual charter schools was 25 percentage points lower than the rate for brick and mortar traditional schools (see figure). In addition, a smaller proportion of virtual school students participated in state tests. However, there is a lack of systematic information about why virtual schools have lower participation rates and what common challenges across states may be contributing to low rates.

Virtual schools may pose increased financial risks due to challenges measuring attendance and—for charter schools, specifically—contracts with management organizations. State officials in the four states GAO reviewed reported different ways of measuring attendance for virtual compared to brick-and-mortar schools. Attendance calculations can affect the amount of certain state and federal funds a school receives. In addition, an estimated 42 percent of virtual charter schools had contracts with for-profit management organizations based on GAO’s review. These contracts can pose heightened financial and programmatic risks to federal funds, according to Department of Education officials. To better understand the scope of the issue, Education officials told us they required states to report information about their contracts with charter school management organizations, including their for-profit status. However, GAO found inaccuracies and undercounting of management organizations in these data. Education’s 2020 Data Strategy calls for using appropriate, accurate data. Unless Education takes steps to improve data quality, and to examine and address barriers to measuring and reporting student attendance consistently, inappropriate allocation of federal funds will remain a risk.

Now the question is, why isn’t this bigger news?  I’d suggest the answer is because it is old news!

For example, in my 2019 Handbook of Distance Education chapter I wrote:

While this discussion thus far has focused on the effectiveness (or lack thereof) of supplemental forms of K-12 online learning, it is interesting to note that full-time forms of K-12 online learning have been found to be even less effective compared to face-to-face instruction. Over the past five years, the National Education Policy Center – through their annual Virtual Schools in the US reports – have documented how full-time K-12 online learning have underperformed brick-and-mortar or traditional face-to-face schools on a consistent basis (Miron & Gulosino, 2016; Molnar et al., 2013, 2014, 2015, 2017). These annual findings have been consistent with the existing research into the effectiveness of full time K-12 online learning – regardless if that research has come from empirical studies, think tanks or policy centers, investigative journalists, or legislative audits. Even the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools (2016), an advocacy organization that supports school choice initiatives, concluded that full-time online charters and the students that attend them perform worse than traditional public schools. (Barbour, 2018, pp. 527-528)

Two years earlier I described over 5-8 pages these findings in a 2017 chapter in the Handbook of School Choice.  That content was followed by section entitled “Motivation for the Growth of Full-Time K-12 Online Learning,” which outlined corporate profits and ideological positioning as the main motivations for the push for virtual charter schools.  In between these two chapters, I conducted some of the research that led to the Network for Public Education’s Online Learning: What Every Parent Should Know guide.  As a part of that guide I wrote:

Online charter schools, the various governmental agencies and foundations that support digital learning, and the for profit education technology sector employ an aggressive strategy to encourage popular support and ensure a favorable regulatory environment. There are four main avenues that the for-profit cyber charter companies use to expand and promote weak governmental oversight and regulations: direct lobbying, donations directly to candidates and legislators, involvement with and support of advocacy groups, and advertising.

Due to a lack of regulation in the online charter school sector, there is insufficient information in many states regarding the amount of money companies spend promoting their interests. Most of the information that we have regarding lobbying, political contributions and advertising generally comes from investigative journalists. According to Education Week, K12 Inc. and Connections Education spent more than $14.5 million dollars on lobbying since 2000 in the 25 states with public records. Google and nine other technology companies spent more than $61 million dollars lobbying Washington, D.C. officials in 2013.

The for-profit corporations that run the online charter schools are also active in supporting political candidates and legislators directly. Arianna Prothero from Education Week reported that:

“Together, K12 Inc. and Connections have spent nearly $2 million on contributions to political campaigns and parties since the mid-2000s, according to the National Institute on Money in State Politics. That number does not include spending on political action committees or donations made by individuals who work with either company.”

For-profit online organizations increase influence through their membership in the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC). Corporations pay to become ALEC members and then donate money to sponsor state legislators to attend private conferences where they urge elected officials to introduce bills written by them or by ALEC staff. They also provide talking points on how to sell these bills to other legislators and to constituents.

An example of the interconnectedness of the first three aspects is useful. As the issue of opening up the educational marketplace to online charter schools was being debated in Maine in 2012, Colin Woodward of the Portland Press Herald undertook an in depth special report on the political influence and relationship between corporate providers of online learning and the advocacy organizations that support this mode of instruction. His reporting, which won a George Polk Award, revealed how the decision to expand online learning in the state was the result of direct lobbying and contributions to Governor Paul LePage by K12 Inc. and Connections Academy, as well as the influence of ALEC and Jeb Bush’s Foundation for Education Excellence, which receives funding from K12 Inc., Connections and other ed tech corporations.

The fourth and final way by which these corporations gain support and recruit students is through advertising. Like the amount of money spent on lobbying, there are generally no requirements for these corporations to disclose how much money is spent advertising and promoting their schools. As a part of a USA Today investigation, Greg Toppo reported that his “analysis found that 10 of the largest for profit operators have spent an estimated $94.4 million dollars on ads since 2007. The largest, Virginia-based K12 Inc., has spent about $21.5 million dollars in just the first eight months of 2012.” He further indicated that:

“A look at where K12 is placing the ads suggests that the company is also working to appeal to kids: Among the hundreds of outlets tapped this year, K12 has spent an estimated $631,600 to advertise on Nickelodeon, $601,600 on The Cartoon Network and $671,400 on MeetMe.com, a social networking site popular with teens. It also dropped $3,000 on VampireFreaks.com, which calls itself “the Web’s largest community for dark alternative culture.”

Though intensive lobbying and large donations often forestall rigorous oversight and regulation of online charter schools, some states are attempting to hold these schools accountable. The California Attorney General sued K12 Inc. alleging that K12 and the California Virtual Academies (CAVA) schools it operates falsely advertised its results. The lawsuit was settled by K12 Inc. for $168.5 million dollars. Most recently, the ECOT charters, the largest online chain in Ohio, lost its authorization after the state ordered it to pay back $80 million dollars for inflating the number of students enrolled. It was forced to close in January 2018, even though thousands of its students re-enrolled in other online charter schools with similarly poor records. (pp. 13-15)

In fact, as early as 2014 in the first National Education Policy Center virtual schools in the US report that I contributed to, I was sounding the alarm about the poor student performance and profit motive involved in virtual charter schools.

It is evident that this body of research is rife with issues. Results vary with such methodological choices as how to measure student achievement; much of the literature applies to supplemental rather than full-time offerings; findings are often over-generalized from specific to general contexts, and vice versa. Based on this decidedly mixed research, one would expect that policymakers would approach online learning cautiously. (Molnar et al., 2014, p. 39)

So again, this is old news!  And it isn’t like I’ve done a lot of work in this area.  In fact, all of the work I’ve referenced above was largely reviews of others’ work – some of which goes back to the early 2000s.

I’m sure there are other reasons why this report has flown under the radar – pandemic pedagogy and the reality that an experienced virtual charter that performs poor compared to brick and mortar schooling is still doing better at remote learning than that same brick-and-mortar school that is stuck in an emergency remote teaching mindset.  Regardless, I think we can all agree that this is old news.  Heck, it’s even been six years since the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools and National Association of Charter School Authorizers came around to the same conclusion.

 

References

Barbour, M. K. (2019). The landscape of K-12 online learning: Examining the state of the field. In M. G. Moore & W. C. Diehl (Eds.), Handbook of distance education (4th ed.) (pp. 521-542). Routledge.

Barbour, M.K. (2017). K–12 online learning and school choice: Growth and expansion in the absence of evidence. In R. A. Fox & N. K. Buchanan (Eds.), The Wiley Handbook of School Choice (pp. 421-440). Wiley Blackwell.

Molnar, A. (Ed.); Rice, J. K., Huerta, L., Shafer, S. R., Barbour, M. K., Miron, G., Gulosino, C, Horvitz, B. (2014). Virtual schools in the U.S. 2014: Politics, performance, policy, and research evidence. National Education Policy Center.

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