Virtual School Meanderings

May 16, 2022

GAO study suggests online school wars may be decreasing

Speaking of that GAO report, it was the focus on John’s blog entry this week – and I have to say I’m disappointed with several of the points that John makes below.  Tomorrow or the next day I’ll try and comment on several of the red herrings that John has below – but today I did want to touch on one of the items.

Below, John writes:

“The people who say companies should not be involved rarely show that they have thought through the implications of what it would mean to eliminate companies from education—because it would be a seismic change given that companies provide the building blocks throughout the entirety of our school system, from buses to books. Based on personal experience, I’ve also found that quite a few people who don’t like the idea of the profit motive linked to education often are very appreciative of the companies that they work with.”

There is a difference between not liking corporations involvement in education or not wanting education decisions being made based on a profit motive, and wanting to eliminate companies from education.  This sentiment is a red herring of the highest order!  Plain and simple!  The reality is that as long as there have been companies and a formal education system in the United States, those companies have found ways to make a profit in that education system.  Textbook publishers are a prime example.  The difference between this example and what exists too often in the United States is the abdication of public responsibility for education directly to corporations.

For example, about 15-18 years ago I was a part of a board that was handpicked by a corporation, who’s main purpose was to sign a contract with said corporation to run all aspects of the school in return for approximately 90% to 92% of the student FTE funding.  The corporation hired the principal, all of the teachers and staff, paid for their own proprietary learning management system and student information system, as well as their own online curriculum.  Basically, as the board – all of whom were chosen by the corporation – it was basically sole responsibility to hand control and operation of a public school over to a corporation.

The United States is the only country that I am aware of in the world where corporations can directly and/or indirectly operate public schools.  This shouldn’t really be that surprising, as John mentions another public good where this occurs – health care.  We have seen example after example in the US health care system of patients not receiving care because a for profit insurance company denied coverage.  How long is it before we reach a point in the United States where these for profit schools decide to not provide an education to this student or that student because of the cost?  The reality is that one of the reasons students who attend these for profit online schools perform so poorly compared to their brick-and-mortar counterparts is because the instructional decisions are based on the bottom line and not on the best interest of the students.  These for profit online schools tend to have a significantly higher student-teacher ratio – as more students per teacher maximizes profits (and is also likely one of the main contributing factors to the poor student performance).

The statement that those who support removing the corporate influence from education want to eliminate companies from education is disingenuous at best – designed purposefully to confuse the issue at worse.  The reality is corporations have always had a role in the education system.  What is different with so many for profit online schools is that if a district wants to end its contract with Coke as the exclusive vendor for their pop machines, it can.  If a district wants to end its contract with one of these for profit online schools, it has to shut down the entire school and start the whole process from scratch (as the corporation owns everything from the school name onward).

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GAO study suggests online school wars may be decreasing


Last week’s post provided brief background on two decades of disputes about online charter schools, and suggested that the battles may be shifting. This post looks at one significant piece of evidence: the recent GAO report looking at online charter schools.

The genesis of this study in fact reflects the history of online school disputes. Back in 2018, U.S. Senators Sherrod Brown (D-OH) and Patty Murray (D-WA) “urged” the GAO to “examine troubling new findings on virtual charter schools,” citing low performance and the profits of some private companies.

(The Senators also brought up ECOT, a large online school in Ohio that was subsequently shut down by the state. The issue with fraudulent, criminal activity requires a separate analysis, because activities within the law and those that are clearly criminal can’t easily be combined in one blog post.)

The GAO recently released its study, and right on cue the Senators put out a press release saying “Brown, Murray Release GAO Report Highlighting Problems Associated with For-Profit Virtual Charter Schools.”

The problem for those who want to ignite these battles, however, is the GAO report is actually very measured and deliberate. It highlights issues associated with online school policies, and in many cases presents the same arguments that online school advocates have been making for years. The Senators’ press release isn’t factually wrong because these are issues “associated” with online schools, but the report calls for improvement of state systems mostly—and doesn’t suggest restricting the online schools themselves.

First, three main points:

  •  Online “charter schools had significantly lower proficiency rates on states tests compared to other school types.”
  • …”a smaller proportion of virtual school students participated in state tests.”
  • “Virtual schools may pose increased financial risks due to challenges measuring attendance and—for charter schools, specifically—contracts with management organizations.”

Aside from the “contracts with management organizations” phrase, none of this is new or surprising.

Why is the finding regarding lower proficiency rates not especially concerning?

“Because we used school-level data, our analysis did not account for certain student-level characteristics that can affect proficiency, such as a student’s academic performance before attending a virtual charter school or student mobility. For example, some virtual charter schools serve students who are academically behind grade level, which in turn may contribute to their lower performance on state assessments.”

The study goes on to explain that the researchers looked at other studies that reviewed individual student data, and that these studies did show lower student achievement. But these are not new studies, and only one of the previous studies controlled for student mobility.

(A future blog post is going to look at student outcomes in online schools more closely, discussing these studies. For now, let’s just say that the GAO report, by its own admission, did not break any new ground on this topic.)

The point regarding online students taking state assessments at lower rates seems to me to be the least noteworthy. The reasons are obvious. Even as the report goes to great length to explain those reasons, it’s clear that when you require students who mostly learn from home, to show up somewhere to take a test that has no impact on their grades, quite a few aren’t going to bother, especially given that some students would have to travel considerable distances. I understand that this raises concerns, and the GAO does recommend that the US Department of Education examine this issue. Depending on whether the federal DOE or individual states take any actions, this could go well or poorly for online schools:

  • Well, if states implement remote state assessment options, or
  • Poorly, if states increase the accountability hit for low participation rates while still requiring onsite tests.

The third point in the GAO summary is the most interesting, as it delves into attendance, funding, and related issues. It’s here that the report is most aligned with online school advocates who have long been saying that states need to create better data, funding, and accountability systems. This section goes on for many pages, but two key points are:

  1. Attendance accounting varies by state; systems and data requirement are cumbersome; and no state has figured out how to count online attendance accurately.
  2. “…the virtual environment makes it more difficult to monitor student attendance and the extent to which instructional services are being provided to students. As a result, there is increased risk that attendance numbers for virtual schools are inaccurate, which translates to an increased risk that virtual schools may receive more or less funding than they should.”

The for-profit company angle
As noted earlier in this post, the original request by two Senators for the GAO to conduct this study noted concerns about “profits” and “for-profit” companies.

There’s no question that some people dislike the presence of for-profit companies in education. Often the feeling is that private companies should not be involved in the provision of a social good such as education. This also is a topic that deserves to be addressed at length elsewhere, other than to note here that the US education system is heavily tied to companies (as is another public good, health care.) The people who say companies should not be involved rarely show that they have thought through the implications of what it would mean to eliminate companies from education—because it would be a seismic change given that companies provide the building blocks throughout the entirety of our school system, from buses to books. Based on personal experience, I’ve also found that quite a few people who don’t like the idea of the profit motive linked to education often are very appreciative of the companies that they work with. It’s like the public attitude towards Congress—polls show widespread dissatisfaction with Congress, but also that most people like their own US House Representative (which is why re-election rates are high.)

It’s also the case, however, that the most egregious examples of illegal activity in online learning have been tied to for-profit companies. These bad actors, such as A3, have given the private sector role in education a bad name.

Here again, the GAO report doesn’t add much. It first makes some deep-in-the-weeds points suggesting that schools tied to management organizations (for-profit or non-profit) may have issues with federal and state reporting. It then goes on to make a concise statement:

“According to Education officials, these risks are amplified when the management organizations are for-profit because their interest in profits may outweigh the school’s interest in complying with federal program requirements and providing high-quality educational services to students.”

Maybe that’s enough for the concerned Senators to run with, but to me it’s a weak statement for two reasons. First, the qualifier “according to Education officials” takes the place of any solid evidence. In a court of law, this would be called “hearsay evidence,” which is usually inadmissible. Second, the word “may” softens that statement immeasurably, making it almost worthless, particularly in a study that goes into great detail in other areas.

The bottom line is that, as noted above, some people don’t like for-profit companies involved in education, and some do (or don’t care.) My argument isn’t going to change the views of those who don’t like companies being involved with education, and the GAO report isn’t going to change the views of those who don’t care.

Why this study suggests that the online school wars may be shifting
Circling back to my original premise—why does this study suggest a shift in online learning policy disputes? Two reasons:

First, much of the report spotlights inadequacies of state systems, not individual schools or online learning per se. Further, these are the same inadequacies that online school advocates have raised for many years—and some of them hit online and hybrid schools that are operated by districts for their own students.

Second, this report has largely been met by…no response at all. The Sherrod Brown press release seems to have tried to appear outraged and then the staffers realized there wasn’t much to be outraged about. The report created hardly any ripples across my various news feeds.

Of course, there have been a few major, distracting (and sad) events in the weeks since the report was released. A major war, high inflation, and seemingly common random shootings will push an education report off the headlines. But still, it feels like this report has received much less attention than it might have a few years ago, and that suggests that the online charter disputes may be waning—with something else taking their place.

More on that as this series continues next week.
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