Classroom Technology

For Better or Worse, Coronavirus Puts Cyber Charters in the Spotlight

By Mark Lieberman — March 31, 2020 9 min read
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The extended shutdown of most K-12 schools nationwide is putting cyber charter schools in a spotlight few could have imagined before the coronavirus outbreak. But that attention could come with good and bad consequences.

Several of the most prominent online school providers in the country have seen a surge of interest from parents looking to enroll their students for the rest of the school year. Cyber charter teachers and administrators have been sharing the expertise they’ve honed over years with educators struggling to hastily throw together remote learning strategies. And free online learning platforms and resources abound for regular schools, at least for the moment, from providers that typically charge.

“In an ideal world, if I was a school leader in a brick and mortar school, and I had to close for a month, having the ability to access tools that I need to do that, but yet still use my own teachers to help facilitate the students getting through that online content—that would be a wonderful marriage,” said Michael K. Barbour, an education professor at Touro University California and an expert on virtual learning.

But some education observers say virtual charters represent an imperfect model for what districts should be striving to provide for students at a distance. Critics of charter schools, which receive public funds to operate, worry that some providers will take a self-serving approach, positioning themselves as viable alternatives for students displaced from in-person schools despite track records that suggest otherwise.

Cyber charter schools have been widely criticized for generating subpar outcomes, most notably in a dramatic 2015 report from the Center for Research on Education Outcomes at Stanford University. Education Week in 2016 published an extensive investigation detailing the failures of many cyber charters to educate their students as well as their poor financial management practices.

Some virtual charters have solid reputations and reliable academic outcomes for students. But for those that don’t, “it does raise questions about, hey, do you want to send kids into that environment?” said Todd Ziebarth, senior vice president for state advocacy and support for the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools.

States Try to Clarify Policy Confusion

Several states had already been working prior to COVID-19 on shutting down underperforming online charter schools. And officials in Oklahoma, Oregon, and Pennsylvania have in recent weeks taken steps to limit the extent to which virtual charters could serve their current students and benefit from enrolling new ones during the pandemic.

See Also: Map: Coronavirus and School Closures

In Oregon, Gov. Kate Brown’s broad order to shut down schools across the state didn’t explicitly mention virtual charters, leaving many of their operators uncertain about how to continue serving students until the local publication Willamette Week reported that virtual charters had been ordered to close as well.

State officials’ goal, Willamette Week reported, was to avoid an onslaught of students transitioning from public schools to virtual charters, thus depleting the annual allotment of per-pupil funds schools receive from the state.

The state’s education department has since clarified that virtual charter schools can still teach, Marc Siegel, an agency spokesperson, told Education Week. The shutdown order prohibits “some operational components” including state-mandated face-to-face gatherings and the ability to drop students from programs, he said.

“Some virtual public charter schools may be able to provide their normal curriculum,” Siegel wrote in an email. “For some students, their academic routines (talking to teachers, virtual group classes) may not change much or at all and they can still receive credit.”

Cyber charters have remained open in Pennsylvania, but the governor signed a bill last week restricting funding from the state for charter enrollments registered after March 13. The state legislature has separately been working this year on a proposal that would cut down on the state’s cyber charter school budget, per the Reporter.

In some cases, legal guidance has been too vague for schools to interpret. Epic Charter School, which enrolls 30,000 Oklahoma students, posted on Twitter on March 16 that Oklahoma had shut down the state’s schools without making an exception for virtual charters. Four days later, the school shared that the department had permitted instruction to continue, starting on April 6.

The school is currently embroiled in a legal battle over its financial records, with allegations that co-founders pocketed state funds. Meanwhile, at least one of the school’s teachers posted on social media urging parents to consider Epic an enrollment option during the pandemic.

Shelly Hickman, Epic’s assistant superintendent of communication, said Epic officials directed that teacher to remove her social media post and emailed all teachers shortly afterwards to advise them against recruiting students.

“While we know the allegations against our school have not been founded or fair and perhaps were a coordinated attack on a new model of student learning, this is not the time to be divisive or negative in our personal social media,” the letter reads. “…Please refrain from any social media messaging that is anything but empathic to the challenges facing some in traditional education. We are here to help them; not present any challenges to them during this trying time.”

As for the state audit investigation, Hickman said school officials are confident it will prove that no wrongdoing transpired. She thinks the challenges schools are facing during the pandemic might convince some skeptics of online learning to soften their stance. “Perhaps that will be the silver lining” of the stigma around virtual charters, she said.

See Also: Rewarding Failure An Education Week Investigation of the Cyber Charter Industry

Experts are cautioning state officials against taking measures that inadvertently punish students already enrolled in virtual charter schools. For virtual charters with restricted operations, “if I made a decision back in September to put my eight-year-old into this program, I’m being unduly impacted in a negative sense,” Barbour said.

It could be tempting for some partisans in the debate between public and charter schools, and between in-person and online instruction, to dig their heels in during the pandemic, said Robin Lake, director of the University of Washington’s Center on Reinventing Public Education. Given the urgency of the situation, though, “we have to be pragmatic and look for solutions where we can find them,” Lake said.

‘Be Helpful and Answer Questions’

The outbreak has hardly been business as usual even for fully online schools. Field trips and in-person staff training sessions have been canceled. Schools that blend face-to-face and online instruction have had to shift to an entirely virtual model.

Cyber charter students aren’t immune from the challenges imposed by learning from home—students with siblings who typically attend in-person schools will now have to adjust to a more crowded learning space. To make matters more challenging, Epic is dealing with supply chain shortages for computers and other hardware necessary to ensure that learning continues for 1,000 of its students who were enrolled at physical sites across Oklahoma, Hickman said.

The everyday experience of teaching and learning, though, hasn’t been disrupted for the most part for cyber charter students, said Angela Lassetter, superintendent of Georgia Cyber Academy, which currently enrolls 8,000 students. And now, she said, her virtual charter school staff has heard from numerous school district leaders and teachers asking for advice on how to help students learning remotely, especially those with disabilities.

“We’ve told our teachers to be helpful and to answer their questions willingly and be there to support anybody who comes to us,” Lassetter said.

K12, Inc., one of the nation’s largest for-profit online education partners for K-12 schools, operates schools of its own and partners with public and private schools that operate on its e-learning platform. That platform is now available for free through June, and teachers for K12 have been hosting webinars and will soon start publishing live and taped lessons educators can adapt for their own purposes.

The company has also been in touch with state officials to offer “expertise and guidance,” said Jeff Kwitowski, the company’s senior vice president of public affairs and policy communications.

Cyber charter officials say they’re seeing a surge of interest from parents who want to keep their students learning for the last couple months of the school year. Georgia Cyber Academy has had 100 applicants during its “emergency enrollment period” with fewer paperwork requirements, Lassetter said.

Connections Academy, which offers full-time online education in 42 U.S. schools and its own private institution, currently has 2,000 pending applications, compared with 700 at this time last year, said Tom ap Simon, managing director of online and blended learning. Like K12, the school is offering its e-learning platform for free to schools.

A Bump in Interest Ahead?

Many states’ enrollment periods and funding schedules mean that virtual charters won’t see additional revenue from new students for the rest of the school year. If the consequences of school shutdowns bleed into the 2020-21 school year, though, cyber charters could continue to see a bump in interest.

Leaders of these schools insist that they’re not trying to profit from a national crisis. “Anybody that we take on right now, this isn’t about generating new revenue or long-term students, this is about serving students that need help now,” Lassetter said.

Scattered reports have suggested that some cyber charter schools have made explicit efforts to tie recruitment efforts to the pandemic. Cyber charter officials interviewed for this article said there’s been no marketing campaigns along those lines. “Parents are coming on their own and asking about what options are available,” Kwitowski said.

Ziebarth thinks states should only put caps on the number of new students poor performing cyber charters can enroll for the rest of the school year. Barbour believes more states should follow Pennsylvania’s lead and continue funding schools based on where students were enrolled before the pandemic hit.

As online learning becomes more mainstream during long-term shutdowns, Ziebarth thinks it’s possible some parents will get more interested in sending students there next school year.

On the other hand, some families might come away with a much more negative impression of online learning if it is haphazardly implemented and poorly executed through the rest of this school year, said John Watson, founder of Evergreen Education Group, a K-12 digital learning research and consulting firm.

“I’ve seen some things suggesting that the new normal will entail many more students enrolled in online schools. I’m not convinced either way,” Watson said. “I think it’s way too early to tell.”

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