In 2017, Oklahoma’s four virtual charter schools had an average daily membership of nearly 12,000 students, but there is no way of knowing how many students actually attended those schools for how many days. Even as the state imposed dramatic cuts in the budgets for brick-and-mortar schools, funding for Epic Charter Schools alone passed $60 million in state dollars. Epic had more than 20,000 students at the beginning of the 2018-19 school year.
At the same time, a survey published in December 2017 and commissioned by the Oklahoma Statewide Virtual Charter School Board found that less than 11 percent of parents who were surveyed said their students’ engagement increased after enrolling in these online schools. Less than 10 percent said that the virtual charters were “significantly better” in quality than their traditional schools.
So, it is time for the Legislature to conduct a cost-benefit analysis of online charters.
Sen. Sharp on virtual charter data: ‘This is crap’
On Sept. 13, I attended an interim study on virtual charter school performance led by Sen. Gary Stanislawski (R-Tulsa) and Sen. Ron Sharp (R-Shawnee). As has been increasingly true of these interim meetings, the morning’s atmosphere seemed tense owing to a competition of perspectives. While presenters thoroughly briefed the legislative committee on the benefits of virtual charters, some lawmakers were persistent with tough questions in an attempt to obtain data related to attendance and at-risk students. When Sharp accused Epic Superintendent David Chaney of “skewing” the data, Chaney replied that they just did things “differently.”
The committee was not given meaningful numbers; they were only told of the answers given by the 16.6 percent of parents who responded. They were told that 68 percent of those parents said their students’ engagement increased after enrolling in these online schools. Also, about 63 percent said that the virtual charters were “significantly better” in quality than their traditional schools.
In another exchange with the advocates of virtual charters, Sharp used a state-of-the-art research term to characterize the quality of the numbers that were being presented: Of the data, he said, “This is crap.”
Eventually, Stanislawski opened the door to a solution. He responded to legislators’ questioning by volunteering that district-run online schools produce better academic outcomes, but they are “selective” in who they admit. He suggested a possible change in law that would allow virtual charters to do the same.
Rather than use the word “selective” in a way that implicitly criticizes traditional public schools, we need discussions with students as a diagnostic process where schools and families make informed decisions about their options. The better solution would be to borrow from the medical profession, which embraces the principle of “first, do no harm.” We would never want patients to go off their medicines without first discussing the decision with a doctor. Similarly, we should not make it easier for students to walk away from school without first engaging in a serious conversation about the consequences of such a choice.
But that misses the point: Would schools that have been lobbying so vociferously for increased funding voluntarily leave $4,786 per student (or more) on the table? After all, it doesn’t cost them much more to admit a student who silently gives up and then allows society to pretend that we haven’t given up on him or her.
Attendance, other data lacking in presentations
The legislators were also shown bar graphs indicating that the test-score outcomes of virtual charter schools were supposedly comparable to those of traditional public schools.
Those percentages were meaningless, however, because they ignored attrition. After the legislators asked how many virtual school students attended for a full year (FAY), representatives of the State Department of Education quickly found the numbers that were appropriate for evidence-based policy-making (which should have been included in the Power Point presentations).
In contrast to traditional public schools, where 93 percent of students attend for the full year, only 31 percent of virtual students are counted as FAY, meaning that the outcomes of less than one-third were clearly reported as opposed to being published in the middle of reports that few people read.
Other parts of the stacks of accompanying materials had information that should also be considered. If legislators study the documents that charter advocates skimmed over, for instance, they will see that in the all-important third- and fourth-grade years, Epic scores were about half of the state’s. The gap narrowed a little over the years, so an average of the average high school scores was about 40 percent lower for the online schools. The four-year dropout rates at all schools ranged from about 3 to 4.7 times more than traditional schools.
And yes, 41 percent of patrons said they sent their children to virtual schools because of bullying. School systems have disgracefully failed in creating safe and orderly schools. We should demand that schools seriously tackle violence and chronic disorder. Until they do so, we must respect the choices of parents seeking to protect their kids, as we consider the unintended negative results of expanding virtual charters.
On the other hand, the surveys show that the majority of students (whose parents responded) received five hours or less of adult assistance each week. Almost 44 percent of special education students received five hours or less of adult assistance, with 11.4 percent receiving less than an hour. Over 90 percent of students received less than five hours assistance per week from friends or siblings.
By the way, nearly three-fourths of the parents of second-, third- and fourth-graders and over 80 percent of the parents of sixth-graders said they intended to keep their children enrolled until graduating from high school. How do those aspirations square with the virtual charters’ actual mobility rate of 70 percent?
The heart of the problem
Why were legislators not told that the high positive numbers reflect only the responses of one-sixth of the patrons? Certainly, the big bucks invested in online or “personalized” learning benefit some, but how many students disengage from what seems to them to be “depersonalized learning” and remain in school in name only? How much farther do those students fall behind as it becomes more difficult to locate them before they are too far behind to catch up?
Even though the consultants hired to do the survey and report the findings, Thomas P. Miller and Associates, said that their results were “statistically significant,” they can’t be seen as significant for real-world policy decisions. The numbers reflect the responses (early in the school year) of the 2,021 patrons who completed the survey, and those responses provide insights into the judgments of only the patrons who were satisfied enough with online schooling to reply. The survey results say nothing about the equally important (or more important) questions about students who did not persist and/or succeed in the online schools.
Which brings us to the heart of the problem: Given the importance of trusting and loving relationships, do we really want to scale up schools where kids sit alone in front of a computer? Even when online learning works, shouldn’t we contemplate the potential harm of excessive screen time as well as the dangers of disconnects for students who flounder in virtual schools before increasing investments in online charters?
Study successes, failures before expanding investment
There is no question that some of Oklahoma’s generous investment in virtual charters benefits some kids, but those investments also allow us a fig leaf, an opportunity to pretend that we aren’t abandoning others, especially those who are behind grade level to begin with. Common sense and the available data indicate that the number of students who are helped is likely much smaller than the number of kids who seem to be falling the through the cracks.
It would be irresponsible for the legislature to expand investments in virtual charters based on the misleading verbal reports of charter advocates as opposed to the disturbing facts hidden in written reports. It would be cruel to continue further down the road to personalized learning without asking how many kids are being hurt and how badly by the depersonalized learning that is an equally inevitable consequence of virtual charters. From now on, the legislative investigation should devote equal attention to what is working and not working with virtual charters and to the risks to unknown thousands who are likely to silently fall further behind.