Oregon Connections Academy (ORCA), an online statewide charter school with 153 teachers serving about 4500 students, has been placed on the state’s a federally mandated improvement list. (The school was renamed Oregon Charter Academy in the 2020-2021 school year)
I’m not surprised.
I took a close look at ORCA in 2017 and it was clear the school had problems, but I figured things might get better. They haven’t.
Just look at the numbers.
Only 21.9 percent of tested students at the school met or exceeded math standards in 2018-2019, down from an already abysmal 22.7% in 2017-18.
English language arts (ELA) achievement has been poor, too. Only 41.8% of tested students met or exceeded ELA standards in 2018-2019 and an average of just 42.8% met or exceeded the standards over the past three school years.
School attendance is dreadful as well. Regular attendance during the 2018-19 school year was only 63.4%, and an average of 59.7% over the past three school years. That indicates chronic absenteeism. In 2018 – 2019, just 71% of the school’s students attended more than 90% of their enrolled school days.
Then there are graduation rates and college attendance. Graduation rates at all Oregon public schools, including virtual charters, are calculated the same way by the Oregon Department of Education (ODE) as an “adjusted cohort graduation rate.” That rate is the percentage of all students who graduate from high school with a diploma within a four-year cohort period after they start 9th grade.
Only 57.1% of students in ORCA’s 2014-15 cohort graduated in four years and an average of 61.1% in the past three school years. There was no improvement with students in ORCA’s 2015-16 cohort, who were seniors in 2018-2019. Only 57% of those students graduated in four years.
Oregon 2014-15 Cohort Rates for Students Entering High School in 2011-12: 73.82%
Oregon 2017-18 Cohort Rates for Students Entering High School in 2014-15: 78.70%
And of ORCA’s graduates, only 41% enrolled in a two or four year college within one year of completing high school, as reported by the National Student Clearinghouse.
WHY DOES OREGON TOLERATE THIS?
ORCA’s performance fits with national statistics for online charter schools. Nearly three-quarters of students enrolled in virtual charters are attending a high school where fewer than half graduate in four years, according to an analysis by the Education Week Research Center.
I’ve written before about Oregon’s virtual public charter schools. New data reveals that Oregon Connections Academy, and Oregon’s public virtual charter schools as a whole, are still failing their students and the parents who enroll them.
A recent study highlighted by Chalkbeat, an education newsletter, found that students who attended an online charter school in Georgia saw large declines in test scores. Of equal concern, the study concluded that ever attending a virtual school is associated with a 10-percentage point reduction in the probability of ever graduating from high school. “This is early evidence that full-time virtual schools as a type of school choice could be harmful to students’ learning and future economic opportunities, as well as a sub-optimal use of taxpayer money,” the study reported.
OREGON’S PUBLIC VIRTUAL CHARTER SCHOOLS DON’T COMPUTE
ALTERNATIVE SCHOOLING IN OREGON: IS THE CURE WORSE THAN THE DISEASE?
Despite that truth, the schools, also called cyber and online schools, are multiplying like fruit flies. Supporters are intoxicated by their potential and doubters are being pummeled as technical Neanderthals unwilling to accept change.
Virtual charters have taken root across the country and continue to grow, though at a slower rate than in the past.
They are part of a movement that is exploding across the country and enjoys the support of President Donald Trump. Trump has called school choice “the civil rights issue of our time” and appointed Betsy DeVos, a fierce advocate of charter schools, Secretary of Education.
“Families want and deserve access to all educational options, including charter schools, private schools and virtual schools,” DeVos said in 2015, before becoming Secretary.
On June 13, 2017, after being confirmed as Secretary of Education, DeVos told the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools, “…as a nation, we are simply not doing a good enough job educating our kids. A system that denies parents the freedom to choose the education that best suits their children’s individual and unique needs denies them a basic human right. It is un-American, and it is fundamentally unjust.”
But the evidence clearly shows that within the charter school movement, the virtual charter industry is not “all about the kids.”
The growth of full-time public virtual charter schools in Oregon offers a case study of a misplaced faith in choice and technology.
ORCA, based in Mill City, is Oregon’s largest public virtual charter school. As noted earlier, its current enrollment is given as about 4500, but that number fluctuates throughout the school year. On Oct. 1, 2015, for example, the standard date for calculating charter school enrollment in Oregon, ORCA said it had 3,789 enrolled students. But 950 students left during the school year, and others enrolled. At one point during the year, total enrollment went as high as 5,631. At the end of the school year, 4035 students were enrolled.
Students, parents and teachers both praise and assail ORCA.
“All in all, ORCA is a fantastic educational experience for those who don’t fit the mold for brick and mortar schools,” a student told a school rating organization.
“This was the perfect fit for our family!,” Andrea Potter Kruse posted on Facebook. “My son was bored in class and getting into trouble. There was horrible communication from the school. We made the switch and my son is loving school again.”
“…my kiddo used to hide in the back of the class and not participate during lessons,” SC wrote about ORCA on Sitejabber. “He’s currently getting the best education of his life. It works for us.”
“Our daughter…has lost motivation and doesn’t really seem to care,” Alyssa E. commented about ORCA on Sitejabber. “At this point, she does the least amount required, which is essentially a lot of busy work and multiple-choice questions.. The teachers are limited by the horrible interface and limitations of the online learning platform. Connections Academy is essentially the K-12 equivalent of the troubled for-profit colleges.”
“Unless your child…has zero interest in doing anything but sitting at the computer for 7-10 hours a day, then I really don’t think this is what you are looking for as an alternative to regular school,” said a parent. “Don’t do this to your child!”
Some teachers praise ORCA for having a hardworking professional staff, flexible schedules, and a commitment to children first.
Other teachers complain about high student/teacher ratios, a revolving door of employees, poor management and profit-driven policies. “Sometimes the bottom line is the goal and not student achievement,” said one teacher.
Both sides of the virtual charter school debate are fighting a raging propaganda war that is almost Darwinian in nature.
Virtual charter champions churn out a torrent of supportive stories, arguing that traditional schools are relics and choice wouldn’t be so necessary if traditional public schools hadn’t utterly failed to meet the needs of children.
Critics argue just as vociferously that the online schools rob traditional brick and mortar public schools of students and public money, lack accountability, exacerbate inequalities of opportunity and worst of all, fail to educate.
IN THE BEGINNING
The public charter school movement in the U.S. has moved quickly from the margins to the mainstream.
Minnesota passed the first state public charter school law in the United States in 1991. The first charter school opened 25 years ago in St. Paul, Minnesota in September 1992.
Still, the virtual public charter sector barely existed in the United States prior to 2000, but it has grown rapidly since then. The siren song of technology as an education savior, particularly for disaffected students who want a non-traditional school setting, is proving irresistible to many parents and children.
Since enacting a charter school law in 1999, Oregon has become home to 21 virtual public charter schools, according to the Oregon Department of Education:
Virtual Public Charter School
School District Sponsor
Baker Web Academy
Baker SD 5J
Cascade Virtual Academy
Clackamas Web Academy
|North Clackamas SD 12|
Crater Lake Charter Academy
Eagle Point SD 9
Dallas Community School
Dallas SD 2
Destinations Career Academy of Oregon
|Mitchell SD 55|
Fossil Charter School
Fossil SD 21J
Frontier Charter Academy
Gervais SD 1
Insight School of Oregon-Painted Hills
Metro East Web Academy
Gresham-Barlow SD 10J
Oregon Connections Academy
|Santiam Canyon SD|
Oregon Family School
Harney County SD 4
Oregon Virtual Academy
North Bend SD 13
Oregon Virtual Education
Scio SD 95
Paisley SD 11
Sheridan AllPrep Academy
Sheridan SD 48J
Silvies River Charter School
Frenchglen SD 16
Summit Learning Charter
Estacada SD 108
Marcola SD 79J
West Lane Technology Learning Center
Fern Ridge SD 28J
Willamette Connections Academy
Scio SD 95
SHOW ME THE MONEY
Charter schools in Oregon, including virtual charters, are publicly funded, so parents don’t pay tuition. Instead, the Oregon Department of Education distributes State School Fund money to each school district that sponsors a charter school.
Oregon law provides that a sponsoring district must pass on to its charter school at least 80 percent of its per-pupil grant for K-8 students and 95 percent of its per pupil grant for grade 9-12 students.
The system leads to big disparities among sponsoring districts in what they keep and what they pass on to the charter schools. This, in turn, can lead to “sponsor shopping” by charter school operators looking for maximum financial return and minimum oversight.
Ohio once encountered an egregious example of sponsor shopping. Charter school operators there that failed to get authorized or renewed by one sponsor simply shopped around for another.
“It’s been too easy for bad schools to find accommodating sponsors to keep them going…at least partly because sponsors in Ohio have earned fees for selling services to schools even when the schools in their portfolio produce poor results,” wrote two charter school supporters, Alan Rosskamm, CEO of Breakthrough Charter Schools, and Nina Rees, president and CEO of the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools.
Under ORCA’s 2005 contract with its initial sponsor, the Scio School District, Scio kept 10 percent of the State School Fund money it received for ORCA students in grades K-8 and 5 percent of the money it received for students in grades 9-12.
In 2005-2006, that translated into $311,358, half of which Scio had to send to the home districts of its ORCA students under Oregon’s charter law at the time.
As ORCA’s enrollment grew, so did the amount of State School Fund money retained by Sic. In the 2014-15 school year, the Scio district retained $1,886,498.34, half of which it had to send to the home districts of its ORCA students.
Scio was ecstatic to see the ORCA money rolling in and looking forward to the windfall continuing.
But while the Scio District and ORCA were in the midst of negotiations on a new contract, ORCA unexpectedly jumped ship. Abandoning Scio, ORCA signed a new contract with the nearby Santiam Canyon School District. The contract began with the 2015-2016 school year.
ORCA’s switch left the Scio School District perplexed and bitter. Not only was ORCA’s departure a shock, but it meant a big hit to Scio’s budget. Scio School District Superintendent Gary Tempel called the revenue loss “devastating” to the tiny district. But the switch was a bonanza for Santiam Canyon.
Charter schools have become cash cows for many school districts that sponsor them. This is even more true since the Oregon Legislature amended the charter school law in 2015 to eliminate the requirement that the sponsoring districts send half of the money they earned back to the home districts of their students. So Santiam Canyon got to keep all of the State School Fund money it held back.
Why, out of Oregon’s 197 school districts, did ORCA decide to switch to Santiam Canyon?
It was probably no coincidence that Todd A. Miller, appointed superintendent of the Santiam Canyon District in July 2013, served as ORCA’s executive director from April 2011 – June 2013.
The other key factor was likely money.
Instead of insisting on the same deal Scio had with ORCA, the Santiam Canyon district agreed to keep just 1 percent of the State School Fund money it received for ORCA.
ORCA also agreed to pay the district a 3.5 percent management fee to support things such as state reporting, business services, special education and other support services, but the payoff to ORCA (and Scio) was still substantial.
In 2014-15, Scio had retained $1,886,498 of the State School Fund money it received because of its sponsorship of ORCA. In 2015-16, Santiam Canyon retained just $1,362,272.49 of the State School Fund money it received because of its ORCA sponsorship. Not only did Santiam Canyon come out ahead because it didn’t have to share any of its money with the home districts of ORCA’s students, but ORCA paid its sponsor $532,235 less with the switch.
Miller defended the deal. “This fee structure does pass through more funds to ORCA than they previously received, yet the school board and I felt this arrangement was balanced for both of us and helped them add additional services to support struggling students,” Miller said.
REELING THEM IN
Oregon started with tough charter school enrollment restrictions.
The state’s charter law initially required that 80 percent of a public charter school’s student body live in the sponsor’s district and that no more than 10 percent of a district’s students could go to a charter school.
Those restrictions, however, lasted only five years. Charter schools can now recruit throughout the state with no limits.
ORCA is particularly aggressive in recruiting new students. Oregonians would be hard pressed to miss the ubiquitous ORCA television ads promoting the school.
The ads, which don’t even use the words “charter school,” are persuasive blends of Wall Street and Madison Avenue that fit right in with Connections Academy’s profit-driven culture.
The result has been a rapid expansion of enrollment at ORCA and other Oregon virtual charters.
Even though I said earlier that ORCA has about 4500 students, it’s actually hard to pin down exactly how many students attend Oregon’s virtual public charter schools at any given time. That’s because enrollment fluctuates wildly during and between school years, with some students going back and forth like ping pong balls.
“Many families enroll in virtual school for a short period of time to address a short-term issue or challenge, academically, socially or personally,” said Allison Galvin, ORCA’s executive director. “Once the family has navigated through the issue, they may decide to return to their previous school. Other families may find online school the perfect fit and remain enrolled.”
The original vision for Oregon’s charter schools was that they would be small, locally run institutions that would be innovative and flexible. But over time the virtual charter system has become profit-propelled and the structure has changed.
ORCA is a prime example of that. The school is like the smallest wooden figure in a classic Russian matryoshka doll, where wooden dolls nestle one inside the other.
ORCA is a not- for-profit corporation governed by a Board of Directors.
The Board has a Professional Services Agreement with a for-profit company, Connections Academy of Oregon, LLC (CAO), to operate and manage the school, under the direction of the Board of Directors.
CAO is a wholly owned subsidiary of Connections Education LLC (CE), a MD-based for-profit. CE is a division of UK-based Pearson PLC (LSE:PSON; NYSE: PSO), which reported annual revenue of $5.511 billion in 2018.
Critics of outsourcing the management of charter schools to companies like Pearson argue that it siphons off already limited school resources for service fees, profits, other layers of administration and costly marketing programs, such as television ads and online campaigns.
ORCA says its curriculum “develops critical thinking and problem-solving skills” and “builds a solid foundation in reading, writing, and mathematics.”
ORCA says that in a 2019 Parent Satisfaction Survey, families gave the school high marks, A high level of 95 percent of the parents agreed that the program’s curriculum is high quality and that their child is satisfied with the program.
But if they looked closely at academic performance data, parents and students might not be so pleased.
ORCA may offer a superior option for some students, but for many students it does not.
This is consistent with a 2016 national study of virtual charter schools which concluded, “Multiple or expanded measures of school performance reveal that virtual school outcomes continued to lag significantly behind that of traditional brick-and-mortar schools.”
Standard test results for ORCA back that up.
ORCA officials said any evaluation of their academic performance needs to take into account that ORCA takes on many students who stumbled at their former traditional brick-and-mortar public schools. “We have a huge population of struggling learners,” Galvin said.
Research bears this out, documenting that students in virtual charter schools are more likely to come from the lower academic segments of traditional brick-and-mortar public schools.
But other research reveals that it’s the struggling learners who are least likely to be well served by online coursework. In other words, while struggling students are the ones most in need of traditional in-person courses, shuttling them off to online schools is exactly what they don’t need.
The same holds true for college students. Research on students taking online college courses indicates that virtual learning is most challenging for the least well-prepared students.
“These students consistently perform worse in an online setting than they do in face-to-face classrooms; taking online courses increases their likelihood of dropping out and otherwise impedes progress through college,” concluded a Brookings Institute study on the “Promises and pitfalls of online education.”
Michael Petrilli, Executive Director of the Fordham Institute, made this point in remarks at an Education Commission of the States’ National Forum on Education Policy.
Because full-time virtual schools require “a kid who’s pretty driven, who has a pretty supportive home environment” for the best chance at success, Petrilli argued, “the schools would benefit from more selectivity and individual review of applications to determine fit, which is not now permitted at public virtual charter schools.”
Research on virtual charter school performance outcomes across the country generally paints a distressing picture linked to test-based outcomes.
A report from the Center for Research on Education Outcomes (CREDO) at Stanford University concluded that the majority of virtual charter school students showed poor learning growth in math and reading when compared to comparable students in traditional brick-and-mortar public schools.
The study also highlighted an intriguing finding, that the problem isn’t charter schools per se, but virtual charters. “Being an online school matters more than being a charter school, “the report said. “The principal impacts of attending an online charter school appear to be primarily driven by the online aspect of the school, rather than the fact it is a charter school.”
A 2017 CREDO report went even further, concluding that charter school operators with a for-profit orientation post significantly lower student academic gains than those with a non-profit status.
Virtual charter school advocates have an unending list of reasons for their poor performance.
Galvin also attributed ORCA’s low graduation rate to many of the students being way behind in credits when they arrived at the school, so bringing them up to speed can be a long and difficult task.
Left unsaid is that the transfer of many of these students to ORCA may, in a perverse sort of way, help the traditional public schools they come from. That’s because it removes academically struggling students from the rolls, improving graduation rates.
Research suggests this is a national problem.
“School officials nationwide dodge accountability ratings by steering low achievers to alternative programs,” ProPublica, an independent, nonprofit newsroom, has reported.
“When low achieving students leave, for instance, average school test scores increase,” said a report from the California Legislative Analysts’s Office. “This gives the appearance that the school is improving, and it allows the school to focus on the education needs of the more motivated students that remain. In addition, when students marked as ‘problems’ or ‘trouble makers’ drop out, they relieve educators of administrative headaches. As a result, inattention to the needs of these types of students can actually make schools appear more successful.”
In E.M. Forster’s 1909 dystopian story “The Machine Stops,” people live alone in small solitary rooms deep under the surface of the earth. Relying on “the Machine” to keep the technology running that allows them to survive, they connect, though rarely, via a Skype-like function on a blue optic plate.
Virtual education can be like that for young people, alienating and isolating.
“A real course creates intellectual joy, at least in some,” Mark Edmundson, a professor of English at the University of Virginia, wrote in a New York Times column. “I don’t think an Internet course ever will. Internet learning promises to make intellectual life more sterile and abstract than it already is — and also, for teachers and for students alike, far more lonely.”
Some assume that virtual schooling for K-12 students must be appropriate and effective because it’s already been proven to work in higher education.
But even in higher education, there are doubts about the suitability of virtual instruction because of its focus on the individual rather than the group. “Learning at its best is a collective enterprise, something we’ve known since Socrates,” Edmundson wrote.
Studies show that the vast majority of students in online K-12 schools suffer because of isolation and the lack of a structured learning environment with required classroom attendance.
Then there’s the question of whether virtual charter schools that take students away from the daily face-to-face interaction of traditional public schools are exacerbating the fraying of the social fabric. That trend was explained in “Bowling Alone”, Robert Putnam’s provocative writing on civic disengagement in the United States.
A powerful tide that once pulled Americans into deep engagement in their communities reversed itself in the late 20th century and has pulled us apart from one another and our communities, Putnam wrote. The result is a society of isolated individuals deficient in social capital.
A “Social Capital Project” report prepared by the staff of a Congressional Committee observed that as Americans interact less with each other, particularly with people outside their immediate circle of family and friends, we trust those outside that circle less. But building broad relationships is exactly what’s needed to collectively develop community, the feeling of being part of something bigger than our close personal network.
In other words, k-12 virtual schooling may be one of the things compromising the health of America’s associational life.
THE VERDICT IS IN
The Center for Education Reform, a school choice advocacy group, said recently that the evolution of the charter school movement “…elevated educational choice to its current state as an invaluable good and an essential component of public education.”
Not so fast.
The charter school movement overall may have made significant gains, but the rapid, almost unrestrained, expansion of K-12 virtual charter schools is showing itself to be a mistake.
A 2015 Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development study found that technology use could positively impact student learning, but only if used in moderation. Overexposure to computers and the Internet actually causes educational outcomes to drop, the study found.
“Students who use computers very frequently at school do much worse, even accounting for social background and student demographics,” the report said.
Similarly, a RAND Corporation study found that students with low test scores who enrolled in online-only schools tended to fall even further behind, rather than recover loses.
At the same time, the movement of big business into the cyber charter school movement is revealing a questionable embrace of for-profit over non-profit public institutions.
What started as individualized efforts by non-profits to serve small, centralized groups of students online has morphed into a huge national business. Already, about 70 percent of students enrolled in virtual charters across the U.S. are attending schools managed by big for-profit companies such as Connections Academy and K12 Inc.
The desire for school choice is understandable, but numerous studies have concluded that full-time virtual charter schools are not the right option for many K-12 students.
“Current online charter schools may be a good fit for some students, but the evidence suggests 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 CREDO in a 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 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.”
The National Education Association (NEA), never hesitant to raise doubts about charter schools, has piled on, too. In July 2017, 7,000 delegates to the NEA’s Annual Meeting approved a policy statement calling for prohibitions on for-profit charter school operations. “…virtual charter schools are never an appropriate part of the public education system as they cannot provide students with a well-rounded, complete educational experience,” the NEA said.
In 2019, The National Education Policy Center cited “the overwhelming evidence of poor performance by full-time virtual…schools” and recommended: Slow or stop the growth in the number of virtual schools and the size of their enrollments until the reasons for their relatively poor performance have been identified and addressed.”
There’s even an antagonistic split within the charter school sector.
While brick-and mortar and virtual charter schools may be at the same dance, they’re engaged in an increasingly hostile pas de deux.
For a significant number of “students who are attending full-time, fully online schools, the outcomes are pretty devastating,” M. Karega Rausch, vice president of the National Association of Charter School Authorizers, told attendees at a 2017 panel at an Education Commission of the States’ National Forum on Education Policy.
Other national charter school advocates have also blasted the virtual charter schools sector for chronic underperformance.
The National Alliance for Public Charter Schools, the 50-State Campaign for Achievement Now (50CAN) and the National Association of Charter School Authorizers (NACSA) has reported that “…too many of these (full-time virtual charter) schools are not providing a quality educational program to the vast majority of their students, while enrolling too many who are simply not a good fit for attending a fully online school.”
Their report emphasized:
- “The well-documented, disturbingly low performance by too many full-time virtual charter public schools should serve as a call to action to state leaders and authorizers across the country.
- It is time for state leaders to make the tough policy changes necessary to ensure that this model works more effectively than it currently does for the students it serves.
- It is also time for authorizers to close chronically low-performing virtual charter schools.”
There’s also concern that virtual-charters are siphoning off money from other public schools, particularly some that are already in serious financial trouble.
“Some will argue that because we’re not serving those students, the loss of funding shouldn’t be an issue,” said Beth Graser, the Hillsboro School District’s Communications Director. “But because those students don’t leave in perfect sets of 30, all from the same grade and the same school, it doesn’t really reduce our costs because we still have to maintain the same levels of staffing and other services.”
Pulling money out of traditional brick and mortar public schools to support virtual charters is thought by many critics to be especially egregious when some of that money goes not to education, but to for-profit management companies.
Oregon’s charter funding rules are also reason for concern.
With the potential for wide variations in sponsoring district fees and levels of oversight, it can be lucrative for virtual charters to go sponsor shopping.
In addition, school districts, particularly small struggling ones that are supposed to oversee the charters they sponsor, have a strong financial incentive to provide more lenient oversight and to ignore problems that might jeopardize the charter’s payments to the district.
Another issue is the wide disparity in amounts of state school fund money sponsoring districts are skimming off the top, leaving varying amounts for actually educating students.
The only groups finding positive results for full-time virtual charters, “have been advocacy organizations supporting charter schools and school choice—and the for-profit corporations operating many virtual schools,” the NEPC claims.
Even though charter schools are public, the movement is being driven, in part, by a loss of faith in traditional public institutions.
A recent Gallup survey reported that Americans have very low confidence in many major institutions. Education has taken a particularly hard hit. While per-pupil expenditures at K-12 schools have been rising, public confidence has been falling. According to Gallup, only 29% of Americans have a “great deal” or “quite a lot” of confidence in the public schools, down from 58 percent in 1973.
Nevertheless, it’s clear that virtual charter schools, given their track record and use of public money, are not the answer.
The market alone cannot be relied upon to provide quality control over virtual charter schools. As Chester Finn Jr., President Emeritus at the Fordham Institute, put it, operating on the principal that quality is in the eye of the beholder, and ignoring school outcomes, is “idiocy,”. “It arises from the view—long since dismissed by every respectable economist—that education is a private good and the public has no interest in an educated citizenry.”
“Once you conclude that education is also a public good—one whose results bear powerfully on our prosperity, our safety, our culture, our governance, and our civic life—you have to recognize that voters and taxpayers have a compelling interest in whether kids are learning what they should, at least in schools that call themselves ‘public,’ “ Finn said.
Despite serious reservations about the efficacy of K-12 virtual charter schools and reams of data calling into question their impact versus brick-and-mortar traditional public schools and even brick-and mortar charter schools, there’s almost sycophantic adoration of the schools by the parents of many attendees and families are increasingly turning to them for their children’s education.
It may be because the debate about virtual charter schools is more about people’s values than academic performance. To a lot of parents and students, virtual charters are really about independence, bonding with like-minded parents, having the option of choice, and escaping from what are perceived as stifling, monopolistic government bureaucracies.
Living in a cocoon of misinformation, they’re not interested in contrary data. And as neuroscientist Tali Sharot observed in her book, “The Influential Mind,” it is hard to convince people with just data. When presented with hard evidence that contradicts their deeply held beliefs, people often work overtime to find reasons to defend those beliefs rather than modify them.
In the 2017 book issued by the Center for Education Reform, the authors argued that these parents should be trusted to make good decisions for their children. “We believe that parents (who see their child come home from school every day) are better able than bureaucrats (who see mostly standardized tests scores) to judge the quality of the school they’ve chosen,” they said.
But the fact is that many K-12 virtual charter schools are like tribute bands, just a facsimile of real education.
Relying solely on the presumed wisdom of the parents to determine the suitability of virtual charter schools is a grievous mistake with potentially damaging consequences for Oregon’s, and America’s, children.