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Underserve and overpromise: The complexities of online charter schools

The conversation surrounding charter schools has piqued national attention in recent months with the confirmation of Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos and her support of them.

North Carolina and other states have been faced with the challenges that accompany charter schools and the variability of their success.

On average, students enrolled in online charter schools lose the equivalent of 72 days of learning in reading and 180 days in math, based on a traditional 180-day school year, according to a 2015 report by the Center for Research on Education Outcomes — amounting to nearly half the expected learning in reading and no learning in math.

The pattern of weaker academic growth compared to traditional public schools was consistent with students of various backgrounds and socioeconomic status. The data was collected from over 100 schools across the country.

Brian Gill, a senior fellow at the Mathematica Policy Research, authored a 2015 report focusing on 200 online charter schools that served 200,000 students across the country. He said that there was a mismatch between the online programs being offered and the students’ needs.

“The results were very disturbing, and we pointed that out at the time,” Gill said. “Again it really looks like it may be the case that online programs with only a small live interaction between students and teachers — that may work well for certain kinds of students, particularly self-motivated students, but a lot of the students that enroll in online charter schools are not those students.”

The first law creating a charter school was passed in 1991 to promote school choice and schools that weren’t as restricted by their state’s rules and regulations so they could educate using more experimental ideas to better serve their students’ needs.

The hope was that these innovative ways to teach students could be used for traditional public schools as well.

To enroll in a charter school there is typically a lottery process in which students apply to a charter school and then are randomly selected for admittance.

Alyssa Schwenk, director of external relations at the Fordham Institute, said that the authorizer for a charter school has a large impact on the school’s success.

“You see some authorizers who oversee charter schools, which are then governed by the charter school board, allow really cool and innovative ideas while also holding the schools accountable to result in achievement,” Schwenk said.

Gill said charter schools make it possible to try new educational practices for more effective education.

“In my view we need educational innovation,” Gill said. “As a society, for 100 years or more, we haven’t invested much, charter schools are in a sense a way to do that.”

Gill said that legislators should be worried about the evidence found within the report, and how students were only getting three to seven hours of live interaction with their teachers a week online.

Ann Allen, an associate professor of education at Ohio State University, said there are some great charter schools, but overall charter schools haven’t made a large impact in student accomplishments.

The charter movement, Allen said in an email, is exclusive and has resulted in racial segregation.

Charter schools in North Carolina originally served a disproportionate population of low-income, African American students.

A 2015 study done by three Duke researchers showed that charter schools have become racially imbalanced and are educating more middle class, white students in North Carolina.

Allen said the typical charter school lottery system leaves some students out and makes traditional public schools look lesser by comparison.

Leaving the markets to decide which students get to join exclusive schools can lead to various problems, such as gaps in service and de facto segregation, Allen said.

CL“Given these issues, it’s hard to see how funding all of these schools is an efficient use of resources,” Allen said. “Certainly, we should have some level of school choice for families, but the market approach to public education hasn’t panned out the way that advocates have suggested it would.”

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Schwenk said that investing in new schools is always a good idea for kids and that charter schools are focusing more on opening high quality schools.

“I think the center of the charter school movement has been quite responsive about changing the focus 20 to 25 years ago where it was let 1,000 flowers bloom,” Schwenk said. “And now there’s much more thought and thoughtfulness…”

President Donald Trump’s proposed budget plan includes an addtional $168 million investment for charter schools, despite a $9 billion cut to the Department of Education.

“The money we are spending on charter schools is money we are not spending on district schools, which are the schools that are meant to serve all students,” Allen said.


CLARIFICATION: Brian Gill authored the 2015 Mathematica Policy Research study, which was released in the same report as the Center for Research on Education Outcomes study, but the two are separate studies.