For some charter school advocates, poor results in virtual charter schools are raising thorny questions about the role of the profit motive in education.
A new study by Stanford University’s Center for Research on Education Outcomes suggests for-profit schools slightly under-perform their not-for-profit counterparts. But it shows the differences are fairly small, and other factors might make a bigger difference.
However, some of the lowest-performing networks identified by the study consist entirely of full-time virtual charter schools. During multiple sessions at a national charter school conference in Washington D.C., attendees wrestled with the implications.
It’s clear access to virtual schools can be a boon for students looking for courses their local schools don’t offer, and those for whom bullying, medical conditions or other circumstances make traditional brick-and-mortar schools untenable.
In part for those reasons, Jonathan Cetel of the Pennsylvania Campaign for Achievement Now said he’s not categorically opposed to profit-making education providers, including in the virtual realm. It’s likely private companies brought much-needed investment that government and not-for-profit groups would never have delivered to a cutting-edge area of education.
But 50CAN, the national arm of Cetel’s organization, joined with other charter school advocates to call for changes in virtual charter oversight. He said education reformers who want to raise student achievement need to figure out what to do about low-performing schools that remain popular with parents.
Virtual education advocates say traditional methods for tracking student achievement don’t always work for their students, who often enroll in the middle of the school year, sometimes in response to crises.
Amber Northern of the Thomas B. Fordham Institute, which also released a recent study on virtual charters, said policymakers should look for ways to make “more strategic use of e-schools.”
The idea that some online schools should set admissions standards, however, has gotten some of the hardest pushback from virtual education advocates, who say it out to be anathema to the school choice movement.
Northern suggested an alternative. Schools could do a better job giving students the information they’d need to judge up-front whether they are well-suited to full-time online learning environment.
“Let them be better consumers,” she said, and allow them to ask: “‘Am I that type of kid?'”
That’s where the profit motive might complicate things. Most virtual charter schools are run by companies that want to make money. If more students mean more revenue, but some students aren’t a good fit, Cetel raised the question: “Is that profit motive actually leading to a focus on growth, or high student achievement?”
The debate over virtual charters intensified in late 2015, when an earlier CREDO study first found students in online charters lost academic ground.
“It doesn’t mean they can’t work,” CREDO number-cruncher Lynn Woodworth said during a discussion of the latest findings. “It just means that for the kids that are currently enrolled, they’re not working.”
The new debate is, in part, a reflection of virtual education’s maturity. Woodworth said another reason the debate didn’t flare earlier is “a lack of information” on how students in virtual charters performed — a void the recent CREDO studies helped fill.