Why Troubles Are Mounting for Online Charter Schools in Three States

By Mark Lieberman — February 05, 2020 4 min read
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Efforts in at least three states to close online charter schools are drawing concern from parents of hundreds of students, and stoking a passionate debate over the merits of school choice and online instruction.

The seven-member Chicago Board of Education voted unanimously in December to rescind the charter for the Chicago Virtual School, which enrolls 520 students who attend class in person one day a week and learn remotely the rest of the week, according to reports in the Chicago Tribune. The school has filed an appeal with the Illinois State Board of Education, which could authorize the charter over the Chicago board’s objections.

Chicago Virtual School is the only online charter school for K-12 students in Illinois.

Lawmakers in Pennsylvania, meanwhile, are pondering more drastic action. In October, Pennsylvania House of Representatives member Curt Sonney (R) proposed a bill that would close all 14 of the state’s online charter schools by 2021. The 37,000 students affected by the closures would be transferred to newly developed virtual programs run by schools in their home districts, the bill says. Lawmakers held a hearing on the bill last month, according to a WHYY report.

And in Nevada, the State Public Charter School Authority Board voted last week to close a fully online middle and high school, Nevada Connections, following the mandatory closure of its low-rated online elementary school, according to a Nevada Current report. The board previously shut down two other online charter schools, the Current reported.

What’s the concern with online charter schools?

The criticisms can be divided into two overlapping categories: concerns about charter schools and concerns about online education. The former encompasses:

  • frustration with per-pupil fees districts pay when parents choose charter schools over local public schools
  • research that points to low or inconsistent academic performance at charter schools
  • objections to schools that take public money but don’t abide by the same rules and procedures as traditional public schools

Critics of online education contend that:

A 2019 report from Stanford University found that cyber charter schools were producing subpar results for Pennsylvania students.

The debate is further complicated by for-profit school providers like K12 Inc., which served as the operator for Chicago Virtual School until 2018. According to the Tribune report, some parents felt that the school’s academic quality went downhill after it moved to a self-managed model. Others have raised objections to the involvement of for-profit companies in providing education to students.

What would happen if these charter schools close?

The Pennsylvania bill requires districts to expand their online offerings. A growing number of schools in the state have begun offering online courses of some kind, though in general public schools lag behind charter schools when it comes to robust online programs.

The options for the Chicago students are less clear-cut. The Tribune reported that city school officials will work with families on finding appropriate options for students.

Advocates for the embattled charter school say parents will be frustrated if their child’s school option suddenly isn’t available to them anymore, particularly if they made that choice out of frustration with a public school option.

“Usually people who are least successful in a traditional setting tend to be the ones who first go and sign up for an online or cyber option,” said Jeanne Allen, founder and CEO of the Center for Education Reform, which advocates nationwide for educational innovation, school choice, and the charter movement.

Some lawmakers have pointedly drawn a distinction between closing charter schools and opposing experimentation. “I am the one who’s asking and looking for innovation in different school models,” Nevada state school board member Sami Randolph said, according to the Current. “But we want school models that can correlate with and improve academic performance.”

Allen points to the widespread adoption of online learning in higher education and corporate training as evidence that K-12 schools could benefit from a more Internet-based approach. Unlike the Pennsylvania lawmakers who support transitioning students to online offerings at public schools, she argues public schools aren’t equipped to take that approach as nimbly or with as much variety as charter schools, which are less regulated.

“If those lawmakers terminate these programs, the parents are going to find another online alternative, or frankly they’re going to go to private schools,” Allen said.

Image: Getty

A version of this news article first appeared in the Digital Education blog.