Are Bad Online Charter Schools the Canary in the Coal Mine?

Online charter schools are getting a lot of bad press recently. While their critics cheer the bad news, we might consider whether this actually signals broader problems within public education. The persistent failures of these schools aren’t just failures in accountability — they could point to larger ills in the education ecosystem.

Here are just three state-level online charter school stories from the past few weeks:

  • Canari_jaune_lipochrome_intensifK12 Inc.*, which manages a network of online schools enrolling 13,000 students in California, will pay $8.5 million to the state and forgo $160 million to settle claims it misrepresented student achievement, financial records, and more. Organizational finances and governance are also under scrutiny.
  • In Aurora, Colorado, the local school board attempted to end the district’s relationship with HOPE Online Learning Centers due to persistently low achievement, but the district was overruled by the state because “we have to give these parents options,” and “now’s not the right time” for accountability.
  • Electronic Classroom of Tomorrow (ECOT), which enrolls 15,000 Ohio students and ranks among the worst performing schools in the state, lost a recent attempt in court to stop a state audit of their actual online attendance last year. The audit will check if student learning hours match up to what ECOT billed the state.

Add these stories to the results of a recent CREDO study, which found overwhelmingly negative learning effects in online charters the opposite of positive learning trends in charters overall. Even charter advocates know something has gone very wrong in the world of online charters: a “National Call to Action” from the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools, the National Association of Charter School Authorizers, and 50CAN called out “well-documented, disturbingly low performance by too many full-time virtual public charter schools.”

Almost everyone agrees that authorizers and regulators should do a better job holding virtual schools accountable for results and protecting taxpayer funds from fraud and mismanagement. But when schools of choice with bad learning outcomes continue to grow, they are a canary in the coal mine, alerting us that things have gone awry in the school system as a whole:

  • Flexibility, supports, and services for students need to be seriously improved if families are willing to accept poor instruction in exchange for freedom from school buildings. Examples of students often in need of better alternatives (whether in the traditional system or the charter sector) include pregnant and parenting students, highly mobile students, students with health or behavioral problems, and students who are bullied. The prevalence of poor-performing online charter schools is a market signal public education advocates should heed.
  • Family engagement on school and student performance is lacking if families aren’t aware of their schools’ poor outcomes in terms of graduation and student achievement, or don’t know that their students are not being adequately prepared for college and a career. Across the country it’s getting harder, not easier, for parents to learn about school performance, that’s a big problem.
  • Facilities and school finance systems need to be reformed if the only charters growing in a state are poor-performing virtual schools, while high-quality brick and mortar schools of choice struggle to expand. 
  • Models of instructional and school quality are too limited if authorizers don’t know how to support virtual schools with a high-needs student population to improve. So many best practices and turnaround strategies are geared toward a traditional schools; does the education community know what high-quality instruction or successful reform looks like in non-traditional settings? What are the best strategies to learn?

Many states, authorizers, and charter advocates have good cause to be very worried about the performance of online charters. They should be even more worried about the broader environmental factors that have allowed bad schools of choice to grow and thrive, and what those mean not only for charters but for public education more generally.   

* K12 Inc. is a past Bellwether client. See a list of all past and present Bellwether clients here.