Dereliction of duty: How bad does it have to get before you shut down a failing virtual charter school?

 

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Millions of taxpayer dollars! Appalling test scores! Horrific graduation rates!

Why are Insight School of Oregon – Painted Hills and Oregon Virtual Academy, both virtual charter schools run by K12 Inc., a for-profit, online education company, still operating?

Why are we letting this happen to our children?

Insight opened its doors in Oregon in 2012 as Insight School of Oregon Charter Option, sponsored by the Crook County School District in Central Oregon.

To operate the school, its board contracted with K12, Virtual Schools LLC, a wholly owned subsidiary of publicly traded for-profit K12 Inc. (LRN [U.S.:NYSE] ). K12 Inc. runs 58 separate virtual charter schools across the country. The company reported revenues of $888.5 million for the Year Ended June 30, 2017.

Insight’s Oregon headquarters was located in a nondescript one-story office building at 603 NW. 3rd St. in Prineville.

In its first three years, Insight’s K-12 enrollment grew to more than 500 students from around the state.

But all was not well.

K12 Inc. says its education program “is proven effective,” but the numbers told a different story to the Crook County School District. Even though the district netted $231,592 in the first year of its contract with Insight and $436,554 in the second, it began to have serious reservations about continuing the relationship.

In Nov. 2014, the Crook County School District sent a blistering letter to Insight expressing grave concerns about the school’s operations and academic performance.

School Superintendent Dr. Duane Yecha and school board Chair Doug Smith told the school they had major concerns about Insight’s: inadequate tracking of student attendance and enrollment; academic achievement; poor test participation; low four-year graduation rate (16.18 percent in 2013-2014); and failure to meet financial requirements stipulated in the district’s contract with Insight.

“…these issues have given the district reason to consider whether Insight is able to meet its ongoing obligations under the Charter Agreement and under ORS Chapter 338,” the letter said.

In 2015, even though the district was set to net $480,710 from its sponsorship of Insight in the 2014 – 2015 school year, it decided not to renew the sponsorship.

So Insight went shopping.

It quickly found a new partner, signing a sponsorship contract with the Mitchell School District 55 on April 29, 2015. The district had just one school serving a few local kids, some teens from around Oregon and high school students from Germany, Thailand, and Hong Kong. The 20 international and regional students all lived in a school dormitory at the school.

With a new sponsor in hand, Insight changed to a grade 7-12 school and renamed itself Insight School of Oregon – Painted Hills.

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Another change was the financial arrangements. Under its contract with the Crook County School District, Insight had agreed to the district keeping 5 percent of the State School Fund money it received for Insight students in grades 9-12 and 20 percent of what it received for kindergarten-8 students. Under the new contract with the Mitchell School District, the district agreed to keep just 10 percent of the total State School Fund money.

Academic performance didn’t change for the better, based on Report Cards by the Oregon Department of Education.

In the 2014-2015 school year, the last with the Crook County School District, only 16.4 percent of the students tested in Mathematics and 48.1 percent of those tested in English Language Arts met the state standard for college/career readiness. Just 37.8 percent met or exceeded state standards in Science.

On top of all this, the graduation rate was a horrific 19.1 percent.

In the 2015-16 school year, the first under the Mitchell School District, scores in Mathematics and English Language Arts got worse and science scores were only marginally better

Only 8.0 percent of the students tested in mathematics and 36.7 percent of those tested in English Language Arts met the state standard for college/career readiness. Just 45.5 percent met or exceeded state standards in Science.

Poor academic performance may have been due, in part, to the high absentee rate, the percentage of the school’s students who missed more than 10 percent of school days during the 2015-2016 school year. Insight’s rate was an extraordinary 66 percent, compared with 18.7 percent statewide

The lowest rate of absenteeism, 45 percent, occurred with 7th grade students, the highest , 86 percent, with 12th graders.

In 2016-17, with the school reporting enrollment of 390 students, performance in English Language Arts improved to 47.1 percent meeting the state standard for college/career readiness, though this was still far below the 60.9 percent performance of all schools statewide. Mathematics performance increased, but from an abysmal 8.0 percent to an abysmal 14.9 percent. Science dropped precipitously from 45.5 percent to 25.0 percent, compared with 60.5 percent statewide.

Other 2016-17 numbers were pretty weak, too. Only 34.5 percent of freshmen were on track to graduate in four years, up from  13.2 percent in 2015-16, but still pitiful compared with 83.4 percent of students at all schools statewide.

Meanwhile the percent of the school’s students that dropped out during the school year and didn’t re-enroll leaped to an almost unbelieveable 75.6 percent in 2016-17, compared with 49.8 percent in 2015-16.

To top it off, the graduation rate, students earning a standard diploma within four years of entering high school, sank from an already horrific 19.1 percent in 2014-15 to 11.8 percent in 2015-16. The graduation rate for 2016-17 is not yet available.

Even the share of students earning a regular, modified, extended, or adult high school diploma or completing a GED within five years of entering high school was just 27.7 percent, challenging the assertion that low 4-year graduation rates are due to credit deficiencies when students enroll.

 

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Another virtual charter school in Oregon powered by K12 Inc. is Oregon Virtual Academy (OVA), sponsored by North Bend School District 13.  “Oregon Virtual Academy awakens the power of learning in students through a personalized program of engaging courses, caring teachers, and a vibrant school community,” says the school’s website.

But, as at Insight, that awakening doesn’t appear to have brought about academic excellence, or even middling success.

For the 2015-16 school year, the North Bend School District received ​$14,874,303 ​from the State School Fund because of its sponsorship of OVA. The District retained $961,681 of that money and forwarded $13,912,622​ to OVA. OVA’s distribution was likely larger in 2016-17 because of increased enrollment.

But who was being taught with all that money? During the 2015-16 school year, OVA’s absentee rate was 41 percent. The lowest rate of absenteeism, 12 percent, was with 1st graders, the highest rate, 68 percent, with 12th graders.

And its academic performance is dreadful, contrary to an assertion by Interim Head of School Dr. Debbie Chrisop that “ORVA provides an education that meets or exceeds state standards, and students demonstrate their knowledge and skills through state standardized tests.”

With enrollment of 2,142 students from nearly every county in Oregon during 2016-17, only 47.9 percent of those tested in English Language Arts and 23 percent of those tested in Mathematics met the state standard for college/career readiness. Fewer than half, 44.1 percent, met or exceeded the state standard in Science. Worse, the Mathematics and Science scores have been going down each year for the past three years.

OVA’s graduation rate for in 2016 was just 28.3 percent, placing it among the worst performing 5 percent of all public schools in the state. Its 2017 rate has not yet been released.

Jessica Schuler, K12’s Corporate Communications Manager, offered the same explanation for the low graduation rates as other virtual charter schools. Every high school student enrolled in Insight School transferred in from another school or education program, she said. Furthermore, high percentages of these students enter behind in credits and not on track to graduate on time. The federal four-year cohort graduation rate does not account for this, she said.

The four-year cohort graduation rate unfairly penalizes schools with high mobility that serve under-credited transfer students (The grad rate of the sending school/district is not affected), Schuler said.  Even though these transfer students successfully earn high credits at Insight, they are unable to graduate “on time” in their four-year cohort, thus negatively impacting Insight’s grad rate.

A problem with this explanation is that even the share of students earning a regular, modified, extended, or adult high school diploma or completing a GED within five years of entering high school was just 42.8 percent, compared with 81.9 percent at all public schools statewide. Again, this challenges the common assertion that low student performance is due to the enrollment of many students who are credit deficient.

Excuses, excuses.

The fact is, full-time virtual schooling is the wrong solution for many young people, particularly those who are already struggling in a traditional hands-on school.

“Current online charter schools may be a good fit for some students, but the evidence indicates that online charters don’t serve very well the relatively atypical set of students that currently attend these schools, much less the general population,” said Stanford’s Center for Research on Education Outcomes (CREDO) in a 2015 report. “Academic benefits from online charter schools are currently the exception rather than the rule.”

In the same vein, a 2017 report from the Colorado-based National Education Policy Center (NEPC) concluded, “There is…little high-quality systematic evidence that the rapid expansion of (virtual charter schools) the past several years is wise. Research has …consistently found that students enrolled in full-time virtual schools have performed at levels well below their face-to-face counterparts.”

A 2016 Fordham Institute study of virtual charter schools reached similar conclusions. “Online schools offer an efficient way to diversify—and even democratize—education in a connected world,” the study said. “Yet they have received negative, but well-deserved, attention concerning their poor academic performance, attrition rates, and ill capacity to educate the types of students who enroll in them.”

Gov. Kate Brown and state legislators constantly reaffirm their commitment to ensuring Oregonians receive a quality education and that public dollars are spent wisely.

If these politicians mean what they say, why are these two schools being allowed to continue sucking up Oregon taxpayer dollars while failing to adequately educate Oregon children?

It’s time for the Oregon Legislature to act on failing virtual charter schools . The next session, which starts Feb. 1, 2018, will be a good time to start.

 

READ MORE about Oregon charter schools:

Virtual Charter Schools Don’t Compute

Too many Oregon virtual charter school students skip state tests

PERS problems? Some charter schools say, “Fugettaboutit”

 

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