In a recent blog post from the Christensen Institute, titled “The right policies for virtual schools” the author argues that “Low-quality virtual schools exist today because current policies hire them to merely enroll students. Instead, we need policies that authorize, fund, and scale virtual schools based on how well they improve student outcomes.” The blog relies on a recent report, “A Call to Action to Improve Virtual Charter Public Schools” to frame its discussion. The report offers the following suggestions:
“[R]equire authorizers and schools to jointly determine … goals regarding student enrollment, attendance, engagement, achievement, truancy, attrition, finances, and operations” and then “make renewal and closure decisions based upon schools’ achievement of the goals in their contracts.”
“Tie growth in full-time virtual charter schools enrollments to fulfillment of interim performance goals”
“[F]und full-time virtual charter school students via a performance-based funding system … based on the progress schools make toward interim and yearly goals.”
While I agree with the sentiment of reforming cyber charter schools, based on my work in Pennsylvania, I do not think the recommendations go far enough. In Pennsylvania, cyber charter schools and district full-time online schools tend to use the same curriculum providers and resources for online schools (ie. curriculum from Connections or K12 Inc.). However, based on a funding model in the state that follows the student and attributes the per pupil expenditure from the student’s home district, this organizational structure inherently encourages inefficiency. The districts can buy content and offer the exact same experience as the cyber charter schools at 1/3 to 1/2 of the cost simply because they already have the structures in place.
The model of having separate cyber charter schooling organizations inherently encourages enrollment incentives to drive practice no matter the policy. This cannot be changed because these organizations need to enroll students to survive, which is essentially the assumption driving choice policy on the supply side of the argument. However, the more organizational structures that exist, the greater the cost to the public. The math is simple: Operating two (or three, or four, or more) schooling organizations is more expensive than operating one.
Sound policy should take these considerations. I agree that full-time online learning improves the academic experience of some students, but I think as a public we should really ask ourselves how we would like to achieve our online learning goals. This could be done by using the organizational structures we already have in place. Perhaps we should have the district or state make online learning providers compete for contracts, or maybe incentivize (or mandate) open enrollment policies and have districts create (or, again, outsource through competitive contracts) online learning on their own. The charter model has been inefficient and has a host of unintended consequences for Pennsylvania schools, especially becoming problematic as budgets and funds are shrinking (more organizations + fewer dollars = declining experiences for everyone).
So while I agree, policy needs to change and these incentive changes based on performance and other goals would be interesting to monitor in cyber charter sector, we also need to think about funding formula changes at the very least and perhaps even more robust organizational structural changes in general.
It is no surprise then that school board elections have mostly been known as being sleepy affairs. Most candidates in the past have been known to spend less than US$1,000 toward campaign expenses such as campaign literature and name recognition efforts. In 2010, for example, less than 3 percent of candidates reported spending more than $25,000.
It is true that of late, the decision-making power of school boards has been curtailed by recent national (e.g., No Child Left Behind and Every Student Succeeds Act) and state (e.g., state takeover laws) policies. For example, when NCLB came up with its own guidelines for “highly qualified teachers,” school boards had to ensure that their definition for teachers’ qualifications aligned with federal standards and not only with local priorities and standards. Ignoring these federal guidelines was accompanied by the potential loss of federal funding.
Even with these recent limitations, however, school boards nonetheless remain important. They can modify, regulate, innovate and resist state and federal policy demands.
This ability to resist or modify policy guidelines was evident recently after the Obama administration released its “Letter on Transgender Students,” which advised school districts to treat transgender students based on their expressed gender identity rather than their sex assignment at birth.
School boards across the country were called upon by local citizens to resist this policy. In some cases, local school boards voted to not comply with the Obama administrations guidelines.
Thus despite their relatively low profile, school boards have the power to dramatically shape local educational experiences by modifying, or even at times ignoring, state and federal rules and regulations.
How widespread is outside money?
This ability to alter or resist state and national policy may be the motivating force behind the recent investment by wealthy, national donors.
To examine this rise in donations to local school board candidates, we investigated over 18,000 campaign contributions in local education elections between 2008 and 2013 in five cities (Bridgeport, Denver, Indianapolis, Los Angeles and New Orleans). We selected these five sites for examination because they were geographically and politically diverse and yet all five had school board elections where national donors became involved.
We found that donations from outside donors were widespread and significant. In the 2012-2013 elections, for example, we found that large outside donors gave over $2.8 million to school board candidates and committees, comprising 44 percent of all funds contributed by individuals. This represents a significant increase from 2009-2010, when large outside donors comprised only 4 percent of donations in the cities we examined.
The figure below shows the growth of out-of-state donations by individuals in each city.
Who’s making the contributions?
By examining publicly available campaign finance disclosure reports, which are filed by all candidates, including school board candidates, and list each donor and the amount donated, we were able to track a list of wealthy donors who contributed at least $1,000 in one election cycle (see here for an example of how to access these data). In total, we found 96 large national donors involved in education philanthropy and education reform. These donors included, for example:
Reed Hastings, CEO of Netflix, who donated in Los Angeles in 2011 ($150,000) and 2013 ($100,000) and in New Orleans in 2013 ($2,500). The high-tech billionaire is active in supporting the development of new charter schools and founded educational organizations such as NewSchools.org and Aspire Public Schools.
Alan and Jennifer Fournier, who donated in Indianapolis in 2012 ($4,000), Los Angeles in 2013 ($2,000) and New Orleans in 2012 ($2,200). Alan Fournier is founder of Pennant Capital Management, which manages $6 billion in assets. Alan Fournier cofounded (with David Tepper, a hedge funds manager), Better Education for Kids, which advocates for tenure reform and greater teacher accountability.
Katherine Bradley, the president of CityBridge Foundation, which “finds, incubates and invests in the most promising practices in public education,” who donated in Denver in 2009 ($500) and 2013 ($6,500), New Orleans in 2012 ($2,500) and Los Angeles in 2013 ($2,000).
Laurene Powell Jobs, wife to the late Steve Jobs and founder of Emerson Collective, who donated to Los Angeles in 2009 ($1,000) and 2013 ($103,000), New Orleans in 2012 ($2,500) and Denver in 2009 ($2,525). She is active in school reform and is a board member for several education nonprofits including Teach for America, the New Schools Venture Fund, and Stand for Children.
Could the top 0.01 percent change local schools?
Outside money may not be a bad thing if the values and interests of donors align with residents in the communities. It might even be a good thing if outside donations raise the visibility of school board elections, so often plagued by disengagement.
Perhaps bigger campaign war chests and close election battles will fuel engagement in school board elections, increase voter turnout and increase awareness of education issues. But these presumed benefits rest on the assumption that these elite donors share the same values and interests of the local community.
Research suggests that this assumption is unlikely to hold because policy preferences among the very wealthy differ from most Americans. Research by prominent academics working on economic inequality, Benjamin I. Page, Larry M. Bartels and Jason Seawright, captures these differences. These scholars found that,
“[o]n many important issues, the preferences of the wealthy appear to differ markedly from those of the general public.”
These different preferences are borne out in our data as well. We found that national donors favored “reform” candidates, or, put simply, those who supported policies such as school choice, performance-based accountability and adoption of the Common Core of State Standards.
School choice offers parents the ability to choose a their child’s public school rather than being assigned one based on one’s home location. Performance-based accountability plans generally require that school or teacher performance evaluations be based upon student standardized test scores. Schools or teachers may face sanctions if these targets are not met. The Common Core of State Standards (CCSS), adopted voluntarily by states, outline what students should know and be able to do at the end of each grade.
We found that candidates who received union support received almost no support from large, national donors. This targeted funding ultimately shaped, at least in some cases, the focus of the election debate.
Here is why it matters
The concentration of funds on candidates with particular policy agendas can squeeze out other policy issues. For example, a candidate we interviewed who was very interested in restoring adult education programs for immigrant parents noted,
“It [money] changes the discourse…their [the reform candidates] message is the only message. Not just the dominant message anymore. It’s the only message that people are hearing.”
While this candidates wanted to focus on the importance of providing adult education programs for immigrant parents, he felt his message about the importance of this issue was unable to compete with the messages being put forth by the reform candidates because he lacked funding to promote his policy agenda.
In our interviews, candidates who received outside funds noted that additional funding enabled them to reach voters more often and through multiple strategies. One candidate supported by large, national donors explained that in addition to mailings and yard signs, more traditional forms of reaching voters, the additional funds enabled him to hire a professional videographer who filmed and edited three vignettes that were shown on TV: one at his home with his family, one in a local library in the community and one in a classroom.
Even traditional forms of contact were given an upgrade. For example, a candidate noted that her materials were “more polished” with “nice photos,” something other candidates were unable to do because of a lack of funds.
Some candidates we interviewed felt voters benefited from this, whereas others worried that voters were “inundated” with information from just a few candidates. One candidate described how a friend received seven mailers from a candidate supported by outside funding in a single day. Candidates without this level of funding repeatedly noted that their message couldn’t compete.
As with state and national elections, we heard from several candidates that outside donations were also leading to increased conflict during campaigns and less willingness to compromise once elected.
One candidate described the polarization of the local board as being “very much like our federal government” where board members were either “a charter school candidate or a union backed candidate” and when on the board, “nobody can cross the line.”
As a result, some expressed concern that voters were becoming more cynical and less confident in their local public schools.
One candidate shared that she heard from voters on several occasions to “please stop calling” because “I’ve already gotten 10 calls this week about the election.” This candidate was concerned that disengagement in the form of low voter turnout was a direct result of citizens being turned off by the election.
What does this mean for public schools?
We certainly support greater attention to improving our public education system. But reform takes time. It takes compromise. It takes understanding of the day-to-day realities of local schools.
The old fashioned school boards, with all of their faults, were often slow and pragmatic, a force that could shield school leaders, teachers and students from broader political forces that whip the local agenda back and forth.
It remains to be seen whether school boards are strengthened by the nationalization of local school board elections or whether the injection of national funds will hinder the ability of schools to improve.
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 too 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.
What is a cyber charter school?
Charter schools are privately managed K-12 schools that utilize public money. The funds for charter schools are removed from regular public schooling budgets and paid to various private firms and organizations (and sometimes other parts of a state’s education system) to provide a wider choice of schools.
In the cyber version of the charter school, instruction is typically delivered to the students online wherever they may live, so long as they are residents of the state in which the cyber charter school operates. The model of these schools could vary – some use a hybrid delivery model (online and in person), although most are entirely online. Students receive course material, lessons and tests on their computer at home (usually the computer is also provided with state funds).
As with traditional charter schools, the general idea behind cyber charter schools is to allow families and students to have a choice other than their local public school.
A 2015 annual report prepared by a consulting group that tracks online school practice and is often cited by scholars to describe cyber charter school enrollment shows that in 2014-2015 there were 275,000 students in cyber charter schools across 25 states. In some states, tens of thousands of students enroll in cyber charter schools. In Pennsylvania, for example, more than 36,000 students enrolled in cyber charter schools during 2014-2015.
Where do the students come from?
One of the goals of recent scholarship has been to understand who are the students who enroll in these schools and why do they do so.
The National Education Policy Center (NEPC) conducts an analysis of cyber charter school students every year. The most recent report shows that in 2013-2014, cyber charter schools, compared to the national average, had higher percentages of white students and lower percentages of free and reduced lunch students.
However, since these numbers are nationally aggregated and not every state has a cyber charter school, we believe comparing national cyber charter school averages to all students nationally may be problematic. Our research at Penn State on cyber charter schools has examined enrollments within Pennsylvania and shows that the picture is more complicated.
Furthermore, in a another study in Pennsylvania we found that it was the economically disadvantaged students who were more likely to enroll in a cyber charter school.
An obvious question to ask is whether parents would have homeschooled their children had the cyber charter school option not existed. The best estimate comes from an internal report of one of the largest national providers of cyber charter schools: The report found that a small percent – 13.6 percent of cyber school students in those schools – were previously homeschooled.
So, what motivates a majority of parents to enroll their children in these schools?
Penn State researchers who interviewed parents who enrolled their children into cyber charter schools found that parents thought these schools were better customized to their children’s needs, carried little financial risk and were possibly the last hope for their child to succeed in school.
Concerns about cyber charters
Despite the hope that many parents hold out for this new educational option, the performance of cyber charter schools has consistently, and often drastically, lagged behind the performance of their brick-and-mortar school counterparts.
Research about cyber charter school performance outcomes paints a dismal picture linked to test-based outcomes. For example, a recent report from the Center for Research on Education Outcomes (CREDO), a policy analysis center based in Stanford University, used a technique to match cyber students to an academic and demographic “twin.”
They did this matching twice, once to compare individual gains of cyber charter students to their statistical twin in brick-and-mortar charter schools and once to compare them to their statistical twin in a brick-and-mortar district school.
Across all racial and poverty status groups of students in the study, the majority of cyber charter school students showed poor learning growth when compared to their matched twin. This was true in both math and reading when students were compared to charter and traditional students.
Researchers found these trends across almost all states that they studied: They found lower learning growth in reading in 14 out of the 17 states, and 17 out of 17 states in math. In their report they noted that improved academic outcomes for a student in a cyber charter school was “the exception rather than the rule.”
This research is consistent with others that examine the academic outcomes of cyber charter schools. Studies have looked at cyber charter school outcomes in Pennsylvania and in Ohio. These studies provide similar results about extremely lower learning growth in cyber charter schools in these state contexts when compared to other schools.
What is of further concern as one legal scholar, Susan DeJarnatt, has shown is that cyber charter schools may not have all the safeguards needed to protect the sector from fraud. Already federal authorities have indicted two of the five “mega-cyber” providers (a school that enrolls more than 2,000 students) in Pennsylvania of fraud.
Outside of the scholarship conducted about fraud in Pennsylvania, a review of hundreds of news stories revealed dozens of state audits across 20-plus states. These news stories repeatedly and overwhelmingly raise concerns about funding and academic accountability across all state contexts, matching the concerns that have emerged in the academic literature.
Following such reports of poor academic outcomes and questionable ethical practices, our research team at Penn State has decided to continue to study the cyber charter school movement in Pennsylvania to find out more.
Our current research examines how cyber charter schools have influenced the entire education system in Pennsylvania.
However, based on the body of academic work that is currently available, we believe while it may be logical to allow online learning in certain circumstances, the cyber charter model is not the appropriate model. And the new education secretary Betsy DeVos might want to exercise caution.