Rising concerns over the management practices and academic quality of virtual charter schools have exposed a deepening divide among some of the nation’s most influential supporters of school choice.
Armed with research that paints a grim picture of the virtual charter school sector, some of the most prominent advocates for charter schools have started calling for education authorities to step up regulation of online schools and shut down those that are falling short. Among them: the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools, the National Association of Charter School Authorizers, and the Walton Family Foundation.
But other marquee school choice groups criticize that stance, arguing that it ignores strong parent demand and fails to acknowledge that research so far has not been designed to capture successes in these unusual schools. One of those groups is the Center for Education Reform, whose founder says the charter supporters are risking becoming too prescriptive and bureaucratic.
“People...who run organizations like mine shouldn’t be casting aside or making huge pronouncements about a type of school and approach at the exclusion of what parents need and want,” said Jeanne Allen, who is also the group’s CEO. “Our philosophy is that anyone who says that any particular kind of school is bad, or doesn’t work, or shouldn’t be in operation, based on limited data, is no different than the education establishment that we were started to fight and help parents get options from.”
Allen said she was “mystified” by recent suggestions from major advocacy groups that virtual schools should not even be charters, but governed by state laws and regulations that are separate from statutes that govern brick-and-mortar charter schools.
Those advocates contend that too many virtual charters have continued to operate in states with few, if any, consequences for their poor academic performance. Most virtual charters are run by for-profit companies that receive taxpayer money meant to support the students who enroll in them.
“We came up with a bunch of suggestions, taken together, they may still not be enough ... But at the end of the day if our movement is about raising student achievement, we need to pay closer attention to the students who are attending virtual charter schools,” said Nina Rees, the president and CEO of the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools.
Rees’ group is also concerned that the overall weak academic outcomes for virtual charter students may be tarnishing the gains made by other types of charter schools.
“We discovered that if you just took virtual charters out of our equation, you would actually see the quality of the Ohio charter school movement go up pretty dramatically,” Rees said, singling out a state that has had some of the most publicized struggles with online charter schools.
Perhaps the biggest player pushing for more stringent regulations of virtual charters is also one of the most powerful boosters of charter schooling and school choice nationally: The Walton Family Foundation. The foundation commissioned the series of studies released last fall that revealed that most online charters have a negative impact on students’ achievement.
The findings from three studies done by researchers at the Center for Research on Education Outcomes at Stanford University, Mathematica Policy Research, and the Center for Reinventing Public Education at the University of Washington, led Walton officials to publish a Commentary in Education Week in January positing that “online education must be reimagined” and that “replicating failures serves nobody.”
The Arkansas-based foundation, the philanthropic arm of Walmart founder Sam Walton’s heirs, has given nearly $400 million dollars to help open new charter schools—a small fraction of which went to virtual charters—over the past 20 years. It also provides funds to the National Alliance, the National Association of Charter School Authorizers, and the Center for Education Reform, and recently committed to spending another $1 billion on education initiatives over the next five years. (The foundation helps support coverage of school choice issues in Education Week. The newspaper retains sole editorial control of that coverage.)
Walton also helped fund another study on academic performance in Ohio’s online charter schools, which was released in August. Commissioned by the Thomas B. Fordham Foundation, a conservative think tank, and conducted by June Ahn, an associate professor at New York University, the study used a different methodology from that of the Stanford report but had similar findings.
“You can’t get to better policy and advocacy without the strong research that gives you the strong data that enables you to establish the correct narrative,” said Marc Sternberg, the Walton Foundation’s K-12 education program director.
On the growing divide between charter advocates on virtual schools, Sternberg added: “It is not for me to tell you on whether a free market approach works for K-12. That’s not our approach. Parents want quality options, and you have to measure outcomes and hold schools accountable for those outcomes.”
But Allen is worried that the Walton Foundation’s focus on results, such as those in the Stanford study, could stifle innovation in the charter sector.
“Sometimes, in an effort to support and advance school choice,” she said, “they don’t see that some of their demands result in a constrained supply that’s actually disadvantageous to kids.”
A version of this article appeared in the November 02, 2016 edition of Education Week