Policies for Virtual Schools based on Pennsylvania

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.

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