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Back to Cyber School?

By Alison Carr-Chellman / August 2015

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As we round the corner on summer, and I think about the back to school shopping that my children are already dreading, I also note a flurry of emails coming into my in-box for cyber-charter schools.

Cyber-charter schools, in the state of Pennsylvania, are free public schools, wherein nearly all or all of the content is delivered online. It is essentially the K-12 equivalent to higher education's e-learning movement. There are some significant differences of course, not the least of which is that the financial models are completely different. But more on that shortly.

Because I have a deep interest in this movement, and did a TED talk a few years ago on the topic. I have spent a good deal of time gathering information on cyber charters. I have compared several curricula and processes; I have supervised a couple of dissertations on the topic; I have even edited a special issue of Educational Technology Magazine on cybers, which featured many of the most important scholars in the area—including some from our own editorial board.

As I have gathered information on the cyber charter movement, I find myself on mailing lists—both hard copy and electronic. As a parent of teens, it's interesting to see the kinds of tactics used by the cyber charters to help parents choose a cyber option. Wisely, these marketing strategies are focused on performance more than on anything else, but occasionally there are also overtures to the need to choose an alternative for things like bullying or poor student performance…sometimes these play on fears parents have about their child's social adjustment or achievement scores. This used to be the norm for advertising among cyber-charter schools—to motivate through fear tactics. I've noted a decided change to more substantive marketing in the past two years or so. This is a good thing, and, I hope, marks a shift toward more substantive curricular changes as well.

Cyber-charter schools do work on a financial model that is problematic from a public good perspective. And while their marketing may have changed, this aspect has not. The essence of the financial models are to deskill the teaching workforce, minimize other costs, and focus most of the expenses on very high-priced curricular materials too often created by a parent company. In essence, there is a way to move the public funds through to the curriculum makers in such a way that they have very high salaries and profits. Some investors see this as the hottest investment property and they are pouring money into cybers looking for high profits. Of course this also leads to protecting corporate interests through the usual contributions to politicians who are friendly to privatization of schools through public funding. This is a particular problem in my own state of Pennsylvania, and the Auditor General has estimated taxpayers are overpaying cybers by millions each year in excess of what it actually costs to educate a child in a cyber-charter school. Where is that money going? Well some of it for sure is being used to educate children. Each child in a cyber gets a computer, a large set of curricular materials including manipulatives and crayons, and they all receive a monthly stipend to hook up to the Internet. Those are all essential costs. And there are labor costs, though most cybers do minimize these costs through extensive if not excessive uses of tutors who are paid far less than certified teachers. But the vast majority of non-essential funds are going to extremely high-priced curricular materials, which can then be pointed to as very high quality within marketing efforts. In many cases, the curriculum company "owns" the cyber charter not legally but effectively. And while this is particularly problematic in Pennsylvania, we find this happening more and more all around the country where vouchers and school privatization is taking hold.

K12 Inc. is perhaps the clearest and easiest target for criticisms of large corporate interests in cyber charter schooling. K12 Inc., founded by Michael Milken, is traded on the New York Stock Exchange. K12 Inc. is not a school itself, obviously—we haven't yet gotten to the point where public schools sell stock in themselves. But we have here a corporate entity that essentially manages the schools it works with; K12 Inc. helps to found them, lobbies and advertises for them, and fully expects a clear loyalty to their expensive curricular materials. And those who invest in K12 Inc. are looking at it as a company with appropriate stock returns just like any other company, as Diane Ravitch points out:

They might just as well have been discussing a corporation that sells tires, toothpaste, bundled mortgages, or manure. These guys are profiting from taxpayer dollars that are supposed. To pay for public schools, for bands, for nurses, for guidance counselors, for reduced class sizes, for libraries. They are taking money away from real instruction, real children, real schools. Have they no sense of shame? Would any of the investors on this call put their own children in a K-12 virtual charter school? Bet not. Bet their kids are in really nice suburban schools or elite private schools. Not sitting in front of a computer and calling it a "school." It's not. It's a business, and the kids it recruits don't get an education.

I'm not quite willing to go as far as Ravitch goes in her damnation of the movement. I think there's no doubt that cyber charters fill an important role and I believe there are some effective and well-intentioned cyber charters out there serving elite athletes and ill children who cannot attend school in the more traditional forms. There are some children for whom cyber charters are the only way they can get a decent education. Perhaps because of their own goals such as being an Olympic hopeful, or because of bullying and social adjustment, some children simply do not fit into the traditional system. And I truly respect the need to make change the system so it can fit for all children. So this is not a simple issue at all. It is essential that we, as a society, care for our children in ways that empower them to go forward and fulfill their dreams. The fall of each year brings back many memories for all of us, and as we trundle our little ones off to school, or help them log on in the comfort of our own homes, we need to balance the need to keep the public good in public education with the needs of students for whom the current system simply does not work. What we likely don't need to balance are the needs of the investors in cyber charter parent companies. Public dollars should not be making individuals or investors rich, it should not be seen as the next gold rush.

I don't have simple answers for this problem. I think that we can create more sophisticated forms of oversight that really allow for the strong charters and cyber charters to be encouraged while recognizing that just individual line items, such as cost of curriculum materials, may require a bit more digging. The caution there, however, is that we need to be careful not to create a system of reporting that is onerous and discourages the kind of innovation that can solve problems for children who really need different kinds of educational solutions. This is a balancing act, and it's clear that online learning for K-12 audiences is here to stay, so we need to better understand how to go "back to school" in balanced and careful ways.

About the Author

Dr. Alison A. Carr Chellman is editor-in-chief of eLearn Magazine. She has been a professor of Instructional Systems at the Pennsylvania State University for 17 years and currently serves as the Head of the Learning and Performance Systems department. She has written more than 100 articles, books, book chapters, and papers on topics related to school change with a particular emphasis on those populations who are underserved by the current system. Her recent TED Talk, Gaming to re-engage boys in learning, has brought international attention to the issues facing boys in the current educational system and ways that digital learning media may be used to highlight the mismatch between boy culture and school culture.

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