Education Trends

Report: Profit Motive Pervades Online Charter Schools and Blended Programs

A new report from the Network for Public Education offered little good news about virtual and blended education in K–12.

A new report from the Network for Public Education offered little good news about virtual and blended education in K–12. "Online Learning: What Every Parent Should Know," is less of a guide for parents than an indictment of the profit motive behind online learning. The non-profit advocates for traditional public schools with smaller class sizes and other education policies that "have been proven to work."

According to the report, many online and blended-learning schools operate as charters run by for-profit companies, such as K12 Inc. and Connections Academy, owned by Pearson. Combined, the two companies delivered education to 52 percent of all full-time virtual school students in the 2015-2016 school year. Where states run their own online schools, these are often in partnership with either for-profit or non-profit curriculum and course providers. The largest and oldest online school, Florida Virtual, contracts with Connections Academy for use of its online courses.

As NPE noted, these forms of instruction are "potentially profitable" because the schools receive the same funding per student that a standard district public or charter school would get, "while having far fewer costs for teachers, services, transportation or facilities."

One way the schools keep expenses down is by rethinking the number of teachers needed, NPE asserted. Citing a "confidential" 2010 memo by K12, the report stated that high school student-to-teacher ratios were from 225-to-1 to 275-to-1; the memo cited a ratio of 60-to-1 to 72-to-1 for K–8. Analysis by Mathematica revealed that online schools "on average provided students with less live teacher contact time per week than students in conventional schools had in a day." To make up the difference, education and oversight is actually being provided by parents.

But money doesn't buy completion. The report quoted the National Education Policy Center (NEPC), which found the graduation rates for 2015 in virtual schools to be just half the size of the national average: 43 percent vs. 82 percent.

While virtual charters often argue that they're enrolling kids at greater risk of dropping out or who are already behind, which would bode poorly for performance, the report's authors said demographic data for those schools tells "a different story." Annual reports from the NEPC find that students in virtual schools "are more likely to be white and less likely to be poor, have disabilities and/or be English language learners than students attending brick and mortar schools."

The report painted schools that mix online and in-person instruction with the same brush as virtual schools, finding that many of the research studies on the impact of blended learning or part-time online learning "has been produced by organizations that promote this strategy," and yield disappointing results over time.

Why are the programs continuing to be picked up and promoted by districts and states? NPE pointed to the financial influence of for-profit virtual charter companies, which rely on a combination of lobbying, campaign contributions, support advocacy groups and advertising – including to students themselves.

There's no mincing words. "Based on the preponderance of evidence, as well as the fraud and mismanagement associated with cyber charter schools, we strongly recommend that parents not enroll their children in virtual schools," the report stated. If families are inclined to consider online education anyway, NPE advised, parents need to get information on to class size and teacher/student ratio, how much time is dedicated to actual teacher/student interaction, what the school's retention and passing rates are and what kind of commitment parents have to make to ensure success. And that's just the start of the questions to ask.

The report is openly available on the NPE website.

About the Author

Dian Schaffhauser is a former senior contributing editor for 1105 Media's education publications THE Journal, Campus Technology and Spaces4Learning.