DeVos champions online charter schools, but the results are poor

 In Politics

Education Secretary Betsy DeVos has touted online learning as a school-choice solution for rural America, saying that virtual charter schools provide educational options that wouldn’t otherwise exist.

But in Pennsylvania, an early adopter where more than 30,000 kids log into virtual charter schools from home most days, the graduation rate is a dismal 48 percent. Not one virtual charter school meets the state’s “passing” benchmark. And the founder of one of the state’s largest virtual schools pleaded guilty to a tax crime last year.

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As DeVos seeks to expand school choice nationwide, including online options, Pennsylvania serves as a case study in the shortcomings of the virtual charter school model, or cyber charter schools, as they are known there. The state’s 14 virtual charter schools have flourished in rural communities over the last 15 years — so much so that Pennsylvania, along with Ohio and California, now account for over half the enrollment in the nation’s full-time virtual charters, according to the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools.

But as the virtual schools have expanded, so have questions about their effectiveness. Large swaths of Pennsylvania kids leaving a brick-and-mortar school for one of the virtual charter alternatives went to one with lower math and reading performance, according to research based on the 2009-2010 school year compiled by the Pennsylvania General Assembly’s Center for Rural Pennsylvania.

Success in these schools depends on a child’s ability — or a parent’s enforcement — to stay on task with no teacher in the room, researchers say.

“Here’s what I would say to Betsy DeVos — do those parents really understand what they’re sending their kids to?” said Mark DiRocco, executive director of the Pennsylvania Association of School Administrators.

Pennsylvania school districts with less-educated parents appear more likely to send higher percentages of students to virtual charters, according to research by Bryan Mann, an education professor at the University of Alabama who studied virtual charters while at Penn State.

Mann said that while some students excel using them, many enroll as a “last-chance option.”

“You feel for those people who have said, ‘I’ve tried traditional schools, this has not worked for whatever reason, my kid is really struggling,’” Mann said. “They are getting bullied or something and they can be desperate, and the only other option they have is something that’s not right for them, either.”

Nonetheless, the schools have a loyal following — particularly among parents who want to home-school their children for religious reasons, who are concerned about safety or bullying problems at traditional schools, or who want flexibility so their children can participate in athletic competition.

“My tax dollars are going to what I actually want my kids to be doing,” said Zoe Hatcher, a virtual charter school enthusiast and a mother of four from Bradford, Pa., who says her two oldest children are flourishing at the University of Pittsburgh after spending all their K-12 years learning this way.

Nikki Dupuis came to see it differently for some of her kids after she enrolled all five in a virtual charter school.

After five years, she feared her three youngest were falling behind. This year, she transferred them to her home school district in Mifflin County, which operates an online school with the option of classroom time. “They won’t get upset if the teachers tell them to do something,” she said.

Despite their track record, Pennsylvania’s virtual charter schools fit in with DeVos’ promotion of school choice, since many rural communities lack brick-and-mortar charter schools or private schools.

Expanding educational choices for families is a longtime passion for DeVos, a firm believer that parents know best. She and her husband invested in virtual school powerhouse K12 Inc. before she became secretary. At least two of the school choice groups DeVos helped found, Great Lakes Education Project and the American Federation for Children, pushed for virtual charters — including in DeVos’ home state of Michigan.

It’s also a message she reiterated during her confirmation process.

“High quality virtual charter schools provide valuable options to families, particularly those who live in rural areas where brick-and-mortar schools might not have the capacity to provide the range of courses or other educational experiences for students,” DeVos wrote to Sen. Patty Murray (D-Wash.).

Rural school leaders, however, have been among the most vocal critics of virtual charters, and they raise questions about the quality of their education.

Amanda Hetrick, superintendent of the Forest Area School District in Tionesta, Pa., said too often the kids are unsuccessful in virtual charters.

“Then they come back to us, and they’ve lost a year because they are a year behind. They haven’t done well. They haven’t passed,” she said.

Hetrick said her district recently paid for one student to attend his senior year at a virtual charter school three times.

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