Sunday, December 4, 2016

PA Ed Policy Roundup Special Edition Dec 3: Cyber Charters: The Crack Cocaine of #SchoolChoice? What would persuade state lawmakers to bring greater accountability to the nation’s troubled cyber charter sector?

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Keystone State Education Coalition
PA Ed Policy Roundup Special Edition Dec 3, 2016
Cyber Charters: The Crack Cocaine of #SchoolChoice?
What would persuade state lawmakers to bring greater accountability to the nation’s troubled cyber charter sector?”

Blogger Commentary (the opinions expressed herein are my own and are not necessarily representative of any organization I may be affiliated with):

In reading several news and commentary pieces covering the policy positions of the Trump Administration’s choice for Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos, my impression is this: That parental choice is paramount regardless of resulting academic performance or fiscal transparency, and that taxpayers who are footing the bill should have virtually no say, via their locally elected school boards, in how their tax dollars are spent.  I was particularly struck by the fact that 80% of charters in Michigan are run by for-profit organizations, in no small part due to lobbying and contributions by the DeVos family.  In Pennsylvania, for-profit charters have been a wellspring of fraud, waste and abuse of tax dollars.

What does accountability look like?  Tomorrow evening, I will begin my eighteenth year as a member of a locally elected, volunteer school board.  About twice a month, at public board meetings that have been advertised in advance, we review and vote upon pending disbursements of our neighbors’ tax dollars.  The meeting agendas are public and posted in advance.  Members of the public have an opportunity to speak on any topic of concern.  Local press provides coverage.  We review and vote on check registers, spending our neighbors’ tax dollars.  Each year, members of the school board complete and submit detailed financial disclosure forms to the state.  Our meetings are televised and stream on our website.  They are run in strict accordance with the state’s sunshine laws.

Each year, ever the course of several public meetings, we discuss, deliberate and reach consensus on a budget for the school district which determines whether there will be an increase in our neighbors’ taxes.  The budget is posted on our website.  The check registers are public information, as are the salaries of all of our employees and our superintendent.  Most of the time the meetings are not particularly exciting; it is democracy at work.

We are accountable to our constituents whom we see regularly at the bank, the barber shop, the soccer field or in the supermarket, and they are free to express their support and concerns.  Additionally, every two years they have an opportunity to vote to re-elect or replace half of the members of the board.

For the past several years those check registers have included payments to a number of Pennsylvania’s cyber charter schools.  Unlike brick and mortar charters, which must be authorized by local school boards, cyber charters are authorized by the PA Department of Education; we never voted to authorize any of the cyber charters.  Our board has had significant concerns about spending tax dollars on cyber charters whose academic performance has consistently been dismal, both under No Child Left Behind’s Adequate Yearly Progress measure, and, for the past four years, the PA School Performance Profiles scores.

Under the law, we have no choice but to approve those expenditures.  If we don’t, the PA Department of Education will just draft our state subsidy to send the payments.  This is in spite of the fact that our own in-house blended programs that provide cyber education operate at about one third of the cost per student to our taxpayers.  We get virtually no information back from the cyber charters other than their invoices.  I have never seen any press coverage of a cyber charter school board meeting.

The two major corporations behind cyber charters, K12, Inc. and Pearson (previously Connections) were instrumental via the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC) in developing model legislation enabling cyber charters and in significant lobbying to have that legislation enacted into law.

This past week, I tweeted a link to Morningstar’s Executive Compensation at K12 to a member of K12’s management.  He responded by accusing me of an ad hominem attack.  Our public tax dollars are funding windfall profits and inflated salaries for these folks who wrote the laws that preclude us from holding them accountable for their performance or their use of those tax dollars.  In a public school district, the superintendent’s salary is public information.

In today’s special edition of the PA Ed Policy Roundup, I have attempted to consolidate a number of pieces that provide details on this issue.  It is my hope that this might serve to better inform the public discussion when considering this question:  What would persuade state lawmakers to bring greater accountability to the nation’s troubled cyber charter sector?

Betsy Devos, Trump’s EdSec Pick, Promoted Virtual Schools Despite Dismal Results
The74 by MATT BARNUM matt_barnum December 1, 2016
EdSec nominee Betsy DeVos has long supported virtual schools despite their track record of low performance
Secretary of education nominee Betsy DeVos has a long history of backing virtual schools, including founding and funding groups that have supported the expansion of online education. Additionally, as of 2006, her husband, Dick DeVos,was an investor in K12, a large network of more than 70 online schools.  Although advocates for virtual education say it is a lifeline for students who struggle in traditional settings, multiple research studies show that online charter schools and other virtual education models post dismal academic results, as measured by improvement on standardized tests.  DeVos, as chairman of the American Federation for Children — she stepped down last week —  repeatedly called for expanding virtual schools. In a 2015 statement released through the group about a federal spending bill, DeVos said, “Families want and deserve access to all educational options, including charter schools, private schools and virtual schools. … [V]irtual schools are growing across the country. Greater innovation and choice will contribute to better K-12 educational outcomes for our children.” In 2012, DeVos supported a plan by Virginia Governor Bob McDonnell that including an expansion of online schools.  The American Federation for Children has praised such schools as allowing for “more flexibility and options in education” and includes “virtual learning” as part of its mission statement.

“Full-time virtual charter school students experience 180 fewer days of learning in math and 72 fewer days of learning in reading in comparison to traditional public school students.  Put another way, these data show that in a given year full-time virtual charter school students overall make no gains in math and less than half the gains in reading realized by their peers in traditional public schools.”
A Report by the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools, the National Association of Charter School Authorizers and Fifty CAN June 2016
The first full-time virtual charter public schools opened in the late 1990s. Since that time, the number of these schools has greatly expanded across the country. As of August 2014, there were 135 full-time virtual charter schools operating in 23 states and D.C. – about twice as many as in 2008. These schools were serving approximately 180,000 students. Students in full-time virtual charter public schools represent a broad cross-section of K-12 education: rural students seeking to avoid a lengthy bus ride to a brick-and-mortar building, student-athletes seeking a flexible schedule, home- or hospital-bound youth who want to stay in school despite an illness or a family challenge, and high school students looking for an alternative to dropping out. Although learning online full time is not the right answer for all K-12 students, there clearly exists a demand for it by certain students and families. However, at the same time that full-time virtual charter public schools have seen significant growth, far too many have experienced notable problems. Governmental agencies such as the Colorado Department of Education and the Minnesota Office of the Legislative Auditor and such national media outlets as The New York Times, The Washington Post, and The Wall Street Journal have documented these problems. Most significantly, though, three research organizations – the Center for Reinventing Public Education, Mathematica Policy Research, and the Center for Research on Education Outcomes (CREDO) – released three separate reports in October 2015 that represented the most complete and comprehensive examination of full-time virtual charter schools to date. These reports examined the characteristics and the performance of full-time virtual charter schools, as well as the policy frameworks in which they operate. Most striking and troubling in these reports is the finding of large-scale underperformance by full-time virtual charter schools. If traditional public schools were producing such results, we would rightly be outraged. We should not feel any different just because these are charter schools.

Bryan Mann is a Ph.D. candidate, Pennsylvania State University, and David Baker is a professor of sociology, education, demography, Pennsylvania State University.
This article originally was published on The Conversation.
What President-elect Donald Trump and the Republican sweep of government will mean for K-12 education priorities over the next four years is not entirely clear yet. However, policy statements and administration selections so far indicate “school choice” will top the agenda.
Betsy DeVos, Trump’s nominee for education secretary, has been known to be an advocate of school choice initiatives: DeVos has supported voucher programs that allow families to use taxpayer money to enroll in private and religious schools. She also promoted charter school legislation that offers students choices outside of traditional public schools.
Vice President-elect Mike Pence also has a history as governor of Indiana of promoting school choice policy. Indiana not only is ranked as having the most favorable policy provisions for charter schools by a prominent charter schooling advocacy group, but it is among the 25 states employing a type of charter school unfamiliar to many folks across the United States: the cyber charter school.  Unlike the usual charter school, the cyber version is typically delivered to students online wherever they may live, so long as they are residents of the state in which the cyber charter school operates. Cyber charter schools have been growing in states that have school choice policy.  Our research, along with a body of academic work, suggests that the public should be concerned about an expansion of the cyber charter schooling model.  Here’s why.

“Together, these accounts raise a critical question: What would persuade state lawmakers to bring greater accountability to the nation’s troubled cyber charter sector?”
Cyber Charters: Widespread Reports of Trouble
Education Week November 3, 2016
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.

“Kids mean money. Agora is expecting income of $72 million this school year, accounting for more than 10 percent of the total anticipated revenues of K12, the biggest player in the online-school business. The second-largest, Connections Education, with revenues estimated at $190 million, was bought this year by the education and publishing giant Pearson for $400 million.”
Reprise 2011: Profits and Questions at Online Charter Schools
New York Times By STEPHANIE SAUL Published: December 13, 2011
By almost every educational measure, the Agora Cyber Charter School is failing.
Nearly 60 percent of its students are behind grade level in math. Nearly 50 percent trail in reading. A third do not graduate on time. And hundreds of children, from kindergartners to seniors, withdraw within months after they enroll.  By Wall Street standards, though, Agora is a remarkable success that has helped enrich K12 Inc., the publicly traded company that manages the school. And the entire enterprise is paid for by taxpayers.  Agora is one of the largest in a portfolio of similar public schools across the country run by K12. Eight other for-profit companies also run online public elementary and high schools, enrolling a large chunk of the more than 200,000 full-time cyberpupils in the United States.  The pupils work from their homes, in some cases hundreds of miles from their teachers. There is no cafeteria, no gym and no playground. Teachers communicate with students by phone or in simulated classrooms on the Web. But while the notion of an online school evokes cutting-edge methods, much of the work is completed the old-fashioned way, with a pencil and paper while seated at a desk.

Reprise Aug 2016: As students return to class, some recommendations to improve cyber-charter schools: Lawrence Feinberg
PennLive Op-Ed By Lawrence Feinberg on August 26, 2016 at 2:00 PM, updated August 26, 2016 at 8:46 PM
If it sometimes seems like "tuition-free" cyber charter ads are running non-stop, consider that in just one year your tax dollars paid for 19,298 local TV commercials for Agora Cyber Charter, just one of Pennsylvania's 13 cyber charters.   And far from being tuition-free, total cyber tuition paid by Pennsylvania taxpayers from 500 school districts for 2013, 2014 and 2015 was $393.5 million, $398.8 million and $436.1 million respectively.  Those commercials were very effective, especially if you were an executive at K12, Inc., a for-profit company contracted to manage the cyberschool.  According to Agora's 2013 IRS filing, it paid $69.5 million that year to K12, Inc. 
According to Morningstar, total executive compensation at K12 in 2013 was $21.37 million.
Not so effective for kids or taxpayers, though.  What the ads don't tell you is that they are paid for using your school tax dollars instead of those funds being spent in classrooms, and that academic performance at every one of Pennsylvania's cyber charters has been consistently dismal.   While the state Department of Education considers a score of 70 to be passing, Agora's Pennsylvania School Performance Profile scores for 2013, 2014 and 2015 were 48.3, 42.4 & 46.4.  In fact, not one of Pennsylvania's cyber charters has achieved a passing score of 70 in any of the three years that the test has been in effect. 

Chart: School Performance Profile Scores for PA Cyber Charters 2013 through 2016
Keystone State Education Coalition October 16, 2016
Source: PA Department of Education website; A score of 70 is considered passing
Total cyber charter tuition paid by PA taxpayers from 500 school districts for 2013, 2014 and 2015 was over $1.2 billion; $393.5 million, $398.8 million and $436.1 million respectively.
Not one of Pennsylvania’s cyber charters has achieved a passing SPP score of 70 in any of the four years that the SPP has been in effect.

Morningstar: K12, Inc (LRN) Executive Compensation

Rewarding Failure: An Education Week Investigation of the Cyber Charter Industry
Education Week November 2016
Benjamin Herold, Staff Writer
Arianna Prothero, Staff Writer
Maya Riser-Kositsky, Assistant Librarian
Holly Peele, Librarian
Alex Harwin, Research Analyst
Sumi Bannerjee, Web Designer
Nina Goldman, Web Producer
Laura Baker, Creative Director
Gina Tomko, Art Director
Lovey Cooper, Multimedia Intern
Holly Yettick, Director, Education Week Research Center
Charles Borst, Director of Photography
Kevin Bushweller, Assistant Managing Editor
Lesli A. Maxwell, Assistant Managing Editor
Kathleen Kennedy Manzo, Managing Editor
Gregory Chronister, Executive Editor

With growing evidence that the nation's cybercharter schools are plagued by serious academic and management problems, Education Week conducted a months-long investigation into what is happening in this niche sector of K-12 schooling. The result is a deep-dive account of what's wrong with cyber charters. Education Week uncovered exclusive data on how rarely students use the learning software at Colorado’s largest cybercharter, the questionable management practices in online charters, and how lobbying in scores of states helps keep the sector growing.

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