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Cyber Charters: Widespread Reports of Trouble

A Colorado cyber charter school with a 19 percent graduation rate. An Ohio cyber that inflated student attendance by nearly 500 percent. A Pennsylvania cyber founder who siphoned off $8 million in public money, including $300,000 to buy himself an airplane. A Hawaii cyber founder who hired her nephew as the athletic director – for a school with no sports teams.

As part of an eight-month investigation into the poor academic performance and financial mismanagement of full-time online charter schools, Education Week reviewed hundreds of news stories and dozens of state audits and reports dating back to the early 2000s.

Together, these accounts raise a critical question: What would persuade state lawmakers to bring greater accountability to the nation’s troubled cyber charter sector?

View the Full Package: Rewarding Failure: An Education Week Investigation of the Cyber Charter Industry

DISCLAIMER: In preparing the information included in this interactive map, the Education Week Library sought accounts from established news organizations and documents from state agencies that reported poor performance and/or mismanagement by full-time online charter schools. The list included here is representative, but not comprehensive.


Arizona

News Links:

"Arizona online schools are rapidly expanding enrollment," Arizona Republic (12/10/2011)
"Arizona nonprofit schools’ ties to for-profits raise flags," Arizona Republic (12/13/2011)
"Arizona taxpayers fund firms to run online schools," Arizona Republic (12/13/2011)
"Experts: Online schools in dire need of oversight," Arizona Republic (12/15/2011)
"Brewer vetoes Arizona online-education bill," Arizona Republic (5/14/2012)

State Audits & Reports:

"Performance audit: Technology assisted project-based instruction program" (October 2007)


California

News Links:

"Cyber classrooms," San Diego Union-Tribune (11/10/2002)
"Virtual charter school network making a profit at the expense of California schoolchildren, study finds," East Bay Times (2/27/2015)
"California’s attorney general is investigating the online charter school industry," Buzzfeed (11/2/2015)
"California Virtual Academies: Is online charter school network cashing in on failure?," San Jose Mercury News (4/16/2016)
"K12 Inc.: California Virtual Academies’ operator exploits charter, charity laws for money, records show," East Bay Times (4/18/2016)
"K12 Inc: California Virtual Academies defend online charter schools as model of school choice," The Humboldt Beacon (4/19/2016)
"California attorney general probe leads to $168.5 million settlement with for-profit online school operator," San Jose Mercury News (7/8/2016)
"Online schools: Susan Bonilla shelves bill after interest groups water it down," San Jose Mercury News (8/30/2016)

State Audits & Reports:

"Settlement agreement and release, State of California v. K12 Inc." (7/8/2016)


Colorado

News Links:

"Online schools flunk audit," Denver Post (12/11/2006)
"Oversight yet to catch up with Colorado’s burgeoning online schools," Denver Post (10/1/2011)
"Online K-12 schools failing students but keeping tax dollars," I-News Network/Education News Colorado (10/2/2011)
"Investigation finds lax oversight of online K-12 schools," I-News Network/Rocky Mountain PBS (10/2/2011)
"Achievement drops when K-12 students switch to online schools," I-News Network/Education News Colorado (9/4/2013)
"Online regulation bill quickly killed," Chalkbeat (3/16/2015)

State Audits & Reports:

"Report of the state auditor, online education, Colorado Department of Education, performance audit" (November 2006)
"Online education reports," (2007-2014)
"Summary report for online schools and programs," Submitted by Office of Blended and Online Learning of the Colorado Department of Education to the state board and state House and Senate’s education committees (June 2014)


Florida

News Links:

"Bush, cabinet reject appeal by cyber high to reopen in Orange," Orlando Sentinel (8/14/2002)
"Seminole pulls plug on cyber school," Orlando Sentinel (8/28/2002)
"Mavericks’ high schools hope to profit from education – But at what cost?," New Times Broward-Palm Beach (12/29/2011)
"PBC Charter school leader accused of steering money to his own company," Palm Beach Post (10/15/2015)
"One Broward County charter school plans to close, another may be forced to shut down," Sun-Sentinel (3/14/2016)
"Pinellas board appears ready to close three troubled charter schools," Tampa Bay Times (5/10/2016)


Georgia

News Links:

"Odyssey School's charter renewed; State board gives approval for it and cyber partner," Atlanta Journal-Constitution (7/10/2009)
"Cyberschool decision due; Commission weighs benefit for Georgia of more virtual classrooms," Atlanta Journal-Constitution (6/18/2010)
"Georgia DOE blasts Georgia Cyber Academy, threatens to pull charter in report," Atlanta Journal-Constitution (11/20/2012)
"State Department of Education praises Georgia Cyber Academy’s progress on special ed," Atlanta Journal-Constitution (12/4/2012)
"Charter school prolonged a painful choice," Atlanta Journal-Constitution (12/18/2015)
"Georgia’s largest online school paid millions, earns a D," Atlanta Journal-Constitution (7/24/2016)
"Georgia lacks clear policy for counting online attendance," Atlanta Journal-Constitution (8/10/2016)

State Audits & Reports:

"Study of virtual school performance and impact," Conducted by Public Impact and the National Association of Charter School Authorizers, Commissioned by the State Charter Schools Commission of Georgia (2015)
"Georgia virtual charter school report," Georgia Department of Audits and Accounts Performance Audit Division (2016)


Hawaii

News Links:

"Charter school stands accused of nepotism," Honolulu Star-Advertiser (12/5/2010)
"Exclusive: AG raids charter school, seizing records, computers," Hawaii News Now (12/17/2013)
"No criminal charges filed against sisters," Honolulu Star-Advertiser (10/29/2015)


Idaho

News Links:

● "Virtual school bailout OK’d; Senate also says yes to changes for charter schools," Idaho Statesman (3/17/2004)*
"A charter for conflict," Lewiston Morning Tribune (6/13/2004)
"Education in uproar," Lewiston Morning Tribune (7/11/2004)
"Idaho not tracking how online schools spend public money," Moscow-Pullman Daily News (4/6/2008)
"Shawn Vestal: Idaho results show that in many cases, virtual education doesn’t deliver," Spokesman-Review (1/28/2016)

State Audits & Reports:

A descriptive analysis of Idaho virtual charter school student academic performance from 2004 to 2009," Idaho Department of Education / REL Northwest (January 2010)

* This article is not publicly available online.


Indiana

News Links:

"Star Watch: Cyberschools multiply, but scores fall short," Indianapolis Star (7/15/2012)
"Rapid growth, rising debt mark Indiana Cyber Charter School," Evansville Courier & Press (6/4/2014)
"Lawsuit: Virtual charter school owes $600K for services," Indianapolis Star (8/11/2014)
"Virtual charter school shuttered over financial, management issues," Evansville Courier & Press (6/17/2015)
"In danger of closure, virtual charter surprises state board by transferring students to sister school," Chalkbeat (9/7/2016)


Maine

News Links:

"Those helping write virtual school policy positioned to profit from it," Portland Press Herald (9/1/2012)
"Multinational giant set to run first virtual school in Maine," Portland Press Herald (3/15/2014)
"Maine’s new virtual charter school sees 25% enrollment drop since opening," Portland Press Herald (1/6/2016)


Massachusetts

News Links:

"Massachusetts Virtual Academy gets low marks for student progress," The Republican Newsroom/New England Center for Investigative Reporting (12/16/2012)
"As state’s first virtual school grows, so do concerns," WBUR (10/1/2015)


Michigan

News Links:

● "Offering more choices?; House education committee holds hearing on online charter schools," Pioneer (1/27/2012)*
"Three years later, jury still out on Michigan's cyber school expansion," Bridge Magazine (10/22/2015)
"4 Grand Rapids schools, 2 charters make state list of low-performers," MLive (9/2/2016)

* This article is not publicly available online.


Minnesota

News Links:

"Arguments heard by education commissioner on BlueSky investigation," Pioneer Press (12/21/2011)
"BlueSky online school rebounding after state effort to shut it down," Pioneer Press (4/27/2013)

State Audits & Reports:

"In the matter of the termination of the existing contract between BlueSky Online Charter School and Novation Education Opportunities," Minnesota Office of the Attorney General (February 2011)


Nevada

News Links:

"Beacon Principal Praises Graduates for Overcoming Odds," Las Vegas Review Journal (6/13/2014)
"Nevada panel weighs closure of several virtual schools, criticizes student performance," KSNV NBC Las Vegas (4/25/2016)


New Mexico

News Links:

"2 Santa Fe charter schools rejected," Albuquerque Journal (9/21/2012)
"Skandera OK’s virtual school," Albuquerque Journal (1/31/2013)
"Bill bans firms from running public schools," Albuquerque Journal (2/13/2013)
"Senator seeks AG’s opinion on whether Skandera actions stray from state law," Santa Fe New Mexican (3/20/2013)
"State lawmakers take a closer look at virtual charter schools," Santa Fe New Mexican (9/16/2016)

State Audits & Reports:

"Virtual education and cyber learning: overview of 2012 through 2014 LESC interim reports," State of New Mexico Legislative Education Study Committee (6/25/2015)
"Performance, cost, and governance of selected charter schools," New Mexico Public Education Department report to Legislative Finance Committee (1/18/2016)


North Carolina

News Links:

"Virtual charter school seeks state response," Charlotte Observer (5/4/2012)
"Two virtual charter schools on track for North Carolina," Charlotte Observer (12/17/2014)
"NC virtual charter schools see high withdrawal rates," WUNC (1/7/2016)
"NC virtual charter schools off to rough academic start," News & Observer (9/1/2016)

State Audits & Reports:

"Report to the North Carolina General Assembly: virtual charter school study," Public Schools of North Carolina, State Board of Education (4/15/2014)


Ohio

News Links:

● "Charter school owes state $48,000 for ineligible students," Associated Press (9/2/2003)*
"Charter schools falling short on audits," Columbus Dispatch (7/26/2005)
"Miscounted students; state owes $263,000 to online school," Columbus Dispatch (4/4/2006)
"Online schools get millions in public support," Cleveland Plain Dealer/State Impact Ohio (9/30/2012)
"Taxpayers’ $1.2 million propped up owner’s 2nd charter-school bust," Columbus Dispatch (11/19/2013)
"E-school to repay Ohio for missing students," Columbus Dispatch (3/1/2016)
"Online school enriches affiliated companies if not its students," New York Times (5/18/2016)
"ECOT sues to block effort to track log-ins of students," Columbus Dispatch (7/8/2016)
"State may force ECOT to pay back 60% of taxpayer funds," Columbus Dispatch (9/27/2016)
"Eschools say they will appeal audits determining inflated attendance," Columbus Dispatch (10/4/2016)

* This article is not publicly available online.


Oklahoma

News Links:

"Virtual school says funding blocked," Tulsa World (8/13/2010)
"University of Central Oklahoma pays $60K to exit charter deal," The Oklahoman (3/1/2011)
"Millions in state aid go to online charter schools in Oklahoma," The Oklahoman (12/30/2013)
"State moves to shut down virtual charter school," Oklahoma Watch (7/11/2016)
"State says 3-year-old probe into virtual school still continues," Oklahoma Watch (7/14/2016)


Oregon

News Links:

● "Oregon virtual charter school faces loss of funds," Associated Press (9/6/2006)*
"Lawmakers loosen admissions for online charter schools as state’s largest such school graduates biggest class," Oregonian (6/24/2011)
"Gresham-Barlow academy gives students an online alternative to traditional school," Oregonian (2/1/2013)
"Oregon's largest charter school miseducated student for years, graduated her unable to read or write," Oregonian (1/21/2013)
"David Sarasohn: Virtual charter school uses smaller district for bigger money (Opinion)," Oregonian (9/12/2015)

State Audits & Reports:

"Online charter schools: policy issues," Oregon State Board of Education Policy Brief (August 2007)

* This article is not publicly available online.


Pennsylvania

News Links:

"Cyber-charter suit is a 'smear campaign,' founder says," Philadelphia Inquirer (9/7/2001)
"Cyberschool is cautionary tale," The Morning Call (5/13/2002)
"Zogby said to be in line for job at for-profit schools firm," Philadelphia Daily News (11/27/2002)
● "Court rules online school must close; Einstein Academy told to shut doors next month," Evening Sun (5/15/2003)*
"Devon charter founder sues parents," Philadelphia Inquirer (2/3/2009)
"Probe found no record of grant money," Philadelphia Inquirer (8/5/2009)
"PA Auditor General: Taxpayers overcharged $365 million annually for charter schools," The Morning Call (6/21/2012)
"Auditor General uses PA Cyber finances to illustrate need for change," Beaver County Times (12/7/2012)
"Ex-workers claim operator of cyber charters played games with enrollment figures," WHYY/Newsworks (1/21/2013)
"Rising Pa. cyber charter costs fuel push for statewide reform," WHYY/Newsworks (5/23/2013)
"Feds: PA Cyber Charter School founder Trombetta schemed to steal $1 million," Pittsburgh Post-Gazette (8/24/2013)
"Donations from ex-cyber school raise concerns," Pittsburgh Post-Gazette (9/1/2013)
"Lawyers in Brown’s fraud case defend her multiple salaries," Philadelphia Inquirer (12/7/2013)
"Ex-CEO of cyber school wants evidence thrown out in fraud case," Associated Press (6/5/2014)
"After 3 years of fighting charges, PA Cyber founder admits tax fraud," Pittsburgh Post-Gazette (8/24/2016)

State Audits & Reports:

"Pennsylvania charter school accountability and transparency: time for a tune-up," Pennsylvania Department of the Auditor General (May 2014)
"Charter and cyber charter education funding reform should save taxpayers $365 million annually," Pennsylvania Department of the Auditor General (6/20/2012)
"The Commonwealth should revise its charter and cyber charter school funding mechanisms," Pennsylvania Department of the Auditor General (September 2010)

* This article is not publicly available online.


Tennessee

News Links:

"Tennessee legislative committee kills bill to close Tennessee Virtual Academy," The Commercial Appeal (2/12/2013)
● "Virtual school hits bottom, gets reprieve," The Tennessean (8/25/2013)*
"Court: TN Virtual Academy can remain open," The Tennessean (6/12/2015)
"Virtual academy improvement deadline unclear," WBIR (8/16/2016)

State Audits & Reports:

"Virtual education report," Tennessee Department of Education (2015)
"Virtual schools in Tennessee," Tennessee Comptroller of the Treasury, Offices of Research and Education Accountability (March 2016)

* This article is not publicly available online.


Texas

News Links:

"3,500 students navigate virtual classrooms at 3 Texas public online schools," Dallas Morning News (11/7/2010)
"Education Inc.," Texas Observer (9/6/2011)
"Virtual schools; not so virtual loophole," Texas Observer (10/10/2011)
"Virtual schools see numbers increase, along with questions," Amarillo Globe-News (6/7/2012)


Utah

News Links:

"Private company could cash in on online charter school," Salt Lake Tribune (10/6/2007)
"Utah charter schools under new performance scrutiny," Salt Lake Tribune (5/27/2013)
"Audit finds poor oversight of Utah schools' online education," Salt Lake Tribune (2/27/2014)
"Two Utah charter schools dumping vendor of online programs," Salt Lake Tribune (5/9/2014)
"Highest, lowest-performing Title 1 schools in Utah identified," KSL.com (12/26/2014)
"State announced high- and low-performing Title 1 schools," KSL.com (10/1/2015)

State Audits & Reports:

"Performance audit 2013-02, distance and online education programs in Utah schools," Utah State Board of Education (2/7/2014)


View the full list of news stories Education Week collected. Please send additional accounts, reports, and responses that you believe merit inclusion to [email protected].

Source: By Maya Riser-Kositsky, Benjamin Herold, and Arianna Prothero, Education Week | Design & Visualization: Sumi Bannerjee, Nina Goldman

Vol. 36, Issue 11

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