The National Education Policy Center announced the release of its report on virtual schooling with the hefty headline "Responsible Policymaking Still Absent for Virtual Schools, Which Continue To Proliferate Despite Scant Research Support and Lagging Quality" There's going to be plenty of scholarly discussion and parsing of the full report, but based on the press release, I feel pretty comfortable with the headline I've chosen here.
The full title of the report, garnered by examining the records of 338 cybers, is VirtualSchools in the U.S. 2014: Politics, Performance, Policy, and Research Evidence, edited by University of Colorado Boulder Professor Alex Molnar, and it will be all over the place shortly. But while we're waiting for the grownup scholars to sort through the details, let me see what a hack fake journalist can tell you about it.
Enrollment is rocketing skyward, sort of. In a finding that is, well, rather an odd surprise, it turns out that cyber-schooling is mostly for white kids. Current enrollment stands at 248,000 students, which is a whopping 21.7% increase over 2011-2012. But that enrollment breaks down into around 75% non-Hispanic whites, 10% African-America, and 11% Hispanic. Given the large cyber-presence in heavily Hispanic states and a national school population of 23%, the Hispanic numbers are surprising.
Are cyberschools less appealing to non-whites, or are cybers aiming their marketing primarily at the white market? Has cyber-school become one more way to get your kids away from "Those People"? Time to take a closer look at the marketing for outfits like K12 (which has a whopping third of all the cybercustomers).
The cyber-free-or-reduced-lunch population runs 10% behind the general population (35%). Students with disabilities runs just over 7% compared to 13% nationally. I found this number surprising, since I think of students with disabilities as people for whom cyber-schooling can be a particular good alternative to bricks and mortar. Less surprising is the English Language Learners (ELL) population-- 9.6% in the real world, but less than 1% in cyberian schools.
So how well do cyber-schools serve their oddly skewed population? After sorting through various state measures of effectiveness, the researchers determined the answer is, "Crappily." (I'm paraphrasing).
30% of the schools had not been measured for effectiveness at all. Only 33.8% of the schools who had been rated did well. Cybers operated by private for-profit organizations were less likely to do well. Only 157 schools reported on-time graduation numbers; their rate was 43.8%. In other words, a student in cyberschool has a less-than-fifty-fifty chance of actually graduating from it.
The report looked through a wide variety of reports, from bureaucratic through journalistic, and wherever one looks, one sees fields and fields of cyberschool suckitude. Consistent, inexcusable, suckitude.
Funding. Apparently every state uses some version of the cockamamie system we use in PA, where the amount that the cyberschool is paid per student has nothing to do with what providing the education actually costs, thereby providing cyber operators with a profit-grabbing system that is literally easier than taking candy from a baby, because a baby cries but a legislator just asks if you want more.
In 2012 K12 made 29 million dollars profit. In 2013, that number was jacked up to 45 million. This is what it looks like when greed makes you stupid. Cybers could charge half the per-capita cost of a brick and mortar school. They would still make an obscene pile of money, and the savings to taxpayers would win cyber-operators hearts and minds from state capitols to local main streets. But since they can't pass up even one more dollar, cyber-operators now get caught both doing a lousy job of educating and price gouging for it.
They could have made allies out of all the people who hate public education, who accuse us of doing a lousy and costing us money. Instead, cyber-operators are busily demonstrating a system that is even worse, that wastes even more money and delivers even fewer results.
NEPC sticks to items that can actually be researched, so yet another report does not address some of the more obvious issues with virtual charter schools, or as some of my students like to call them, "those schools where anybody can do your homework for you, and you get a free computer." But there appears to be more than enough meat in this report to feed some well-needed discussion.
The report will hit the print media tomorrow and be available on line any minute. If you are not familiar with NEPC, you should be-- these folks do actual peer-reviewed legitimate research. Once you have digested this report, you should send off a copy to your favorite legislator (in PA, be sure to attach a note reminding them that SB 1085 is a lousy idea). It's time that cyber-schools be accountable to the taxpayers they milk and the customers they bilk.