Essay: Online Charter School Policy and Politics
24 April 2016
Online Charter School Policy and Politics
To improve your lot in life, you need access to a quality education. For the majority of American students, it is our public school system that is relied upon to deliver an educational foundation which enables us to accomplish our goals, enrich our lives, and provide joys that only an education can provide. In 1994, politicians, parents, and educators came together with the intent of improving our public school system by offering parents and students new choices in education. These new choices came in the form of the Charter School Program which approved a policy framework that individual states could adopt to allow private companies or organizations the ability to open schools and receive funding in a way similar to how our public schools receive funding, which is on a per student basis. Ever since their inception, charter school enrollment has increased year-over-year (Charter Enrollment), but so has the controversy which has encircled the new schools. At the middle of this controversy is the rapidly growing sub-sector of charters that develop and deliver their curriculum through the computer instead of a traditional schoolhouse. These online schools are pioneering an entirely new way for students to get an education, but they also raise some serious questions as to how to properly regulate the schools to ensure the goal of an improved curriculum and student experience is actually being realized. Current policy regarding charter schools does not consider the unique qualities of an online education, and without reform, abuse of online charters will continue to drag down the credibility of a viable and much needed option in education.
In a recent cartoon published by The Columbus Dispatch (Beeler), a local Ohio newspaper, online charter schools are depicted as fronts that are only temporarily established to collect tax dollars from the state. The cartoon demonstrates this by showing a con-artist in a suit collecting tax money from the citizens of Ohio through a window in his online charter school which can be quickly dismantled and closed down once the tax dollars stop pouring in. The cartoon also has a truck in the back with bags of money, which implies that the money is only flowing through the school instead of flowing into the school. Without knowing exactly who the man in the suit is, the cartoon can be interpreted in one of two different ways. If you assume that the man is a representative of the school, then you would conclude that the cartoon is depicting that the state is being ripped off by the operators of the online charters. On the other hand, if you assume that the man in the suit is a politician, then you would conclude that the taxpayers are being ripped off by greedy politicians who are utilizing the online charter as an easy way to siphon off money to organizations and companies of their choosing. Either way, the cartoon suggests that loopholes in Ohio charter laws are creating a situation where online charter schools can be exploited since they are not being held accountable for the funding they receive.
The state of Ohio has been at the center of the online charter school debate since it has historically held very lean policies when it comes to online charter regulation and accountability. This lack of policy may be a major contributing factor to the many other problems that are currently being blamed on the online charters and their organizers. Some of these problems include comparatively low test scores, multiple school closures, suspected enrollment fraud, and political misconduct. David Hansen, the Ohio Charter School Chief, was forced to resign after admitting to intentionally omitting failing grades for online charter school students so he could boost the scores on his annual charter school report (Hefling). This misrepresentation of grades extended funding to a number of online charters in Ohio which were not reaching their required academic goals. Since some of the advocacy groups affiliated with these online charters made large political contributions, Hansen’s actions have been called criminal. Additionally, a number of Ohio online charters have been suspected of possible enrollment fraud. Akron Digital Academy, an online charter school in Ohio, collected over $3 million in state funding per year for its enrolled student count of 400. When investigators went to look at attendance records, the school could not furnish them, putting to question how many students were actually in attendance. Another similar case occurred at an online charter school based out of Columbus called Provost Academy. They received over $1 million in funding for 162 students, but then an investigation revealed they only had records to support full time enrollment for 35 students (Beacon). Provost Academy has been asked to reimburse the state for the $800,000 overpayment. These two cases alone put 275 million dollars of the states education budget to question. Joe Schiavoni, the Ohio Senate minority leader has responded to these allegations by proposing legislation that would ensure more accurate attendance records and improved accountability. Although Ohio is moving in the direction of additional regulation, the damage caused by the lack of proper oversight has permanently damaged the reputation and credibility of the online charter.
Even though Ohio is making progress on attendance and accountability legislation, other states are moving in the opposite direction. Officials from the North Carolina Virtual Academy, which is a charter operated by the largest for-profit charter school company K12 Inc. said in a recent meeting “recording and reporting daily student attendance through the online reporting software that traditional schools use didn’t work for them” (Wagner). After the meeting, the NC State Board of Education approved a policy which reduced minimum attendance for online charters to one login every ten days. Heading back out West, The State Public Charter School Authority of Nevada is considering closure of four of its ten online charter schools for low performance scores and graduation rates (Oneal). Nevada is another state who has been repealing instead of enhancing legislation. In October 2011, they changed the attendance requirement for online schools so that even if students did not log in, the schools would continue to receive funding for that student. The new policy stated that as long as the student could pass course examinations at the end of the school year, the school would receive full funding.
The online charter school lobby groups are fighting against further legislation, but it may just be that further legislation will enable online charters the ability to accomplish their goal of improving the overall state of our country’s education system. How can we expect students or schools to perform well on standardized tests when the students are not held accountable for investing the study time required to learn new material? Student accountability, time tracking, and overall engagement are all metrics which can be easily tracked through a website or other curriculum delivery platform, so the operators of online charter schools have no excuse for not realizing the importance of engagement when it comes to online learning. To put an end to this abuse we need legislation specific to online charter schools which sets an attendance standard at a minimal acceptable level for average student performance, then leave it up to the schools to improve upon this policy to make their school’s stand out as a possible model school. The need for attendance regulation was part of what Audrye Wong of the University of Michigan concluded in her recent report which stated that a lack of proper oversight and legislation has historically produced low test scores and an overall dissatisfaction with charter schools (Wong). Wong recommends that “the best strategy in designing charter school law may be to first focus on ensuring academic quality through accountability reform and establishing adequate standards in a smaller group of schools prior to engaging in a state-wide expansion of charter schools.”
Even though online charters are struggling to maintain credibility, parents of online charter students praise the current environment for providing a safe and accepting atmosphere which positively contributes to their child’s success in school. When Nevada was considering the closure of four online charters, many parents attended the meeting and spoke to defend the online schools. Tina Zabalza said her reason for choosing an online charter school was because “My first son was attacked on his way home from Spring Valley High in 2009, where he suffered severe jaw injuries, his jaw was broken in 2 different places.” Another parent stood up and told her story about how her son has Asperger’s syndrome, which makes it very difficult for him to get along in a public school setting (Kynaston). Specific cases like these represent tens or maybe even hundreds of thousands of students nationwide who were educationally under-served until they switched to an online charter. If we continue to lower the attendance standard for online charter schools, students like these will be forced back into the public school system which could increase the likelihood that they fail to meet their educational goal.
Beacon Journal. “Another Episode in Online Charter Schools Grabbing for Public Money.” Ohio.com. Akron Beacon Journal, 02 Apr. 2016. Web. 24 Apr. 2016.
Beeler, Nate. “Virtual Classroom.” Cagle Cartoons. The Columbus Dispatch, n.d. Web. “Charter School Enrollment – Indicator April (2015).” The Condition of Education. National Center for Education Statistics, 01 Apr. 2015. Web. 22 Apr. 2016.
Dispatch Board. “Hold Charters Accountable.” The Columbus Dispatch. The Columbus Dispatch, 28 Mar. 2016. Web. 24 Apr. 2016.
Hefling, Kimberly. “Charter School Scandal Haunts John Kasich.” Politico. Politico, 14 Mar. 2016. Web. 24 Apr. 2016.
Kynaston, Marissa. “Four State Online Schools at Risk of Shutting down.” KTNV. KTNV, 26 Mar. 2016. Web. 24 Apr. 2016.
Oneal, Nathan. “Nevada Panel Weighs Closure of Several Virtual Schools.” KSNV. KSNV, 25 Mar. 2016. Web. 24 Apr. 2016.
Wagner, Lindsay. “New Policy Eliminates Daily Student Attendance Reporting.” NC Policy Watch. NC Policy Watch, 02 Sept. 2015. Web. 24 Apr. 2016.
Wong, Audrye. “State Charter Law and Charter School Outcomes.” Michigan Journal of Public Affairs Spring 11 (2014): n. pag. Web. 24 Apr. 2016.
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