Reporters Lyndsey Layton and Emma Brown at the Washington Post, wrote an investigative article entitled “Virtual Schools are Multiplying, but Some Question Their Value” that appeared on Saturday, November 26. The reporters chronicled the development of K-12 Inc virtual charter school in Massachusetts and the politics involved in the process.
K12’s push into New England illustrates its skill. In 2009, the company began exploring the potential for opening a virtual school in Massachusetts in partnership with the rural Greenfield school district.
But Massachusetts education officials halted the plan, saying Greenfield had no legal authority to create a statewide school. So Greenfield and K12 turned to legislators, with the company spending about $200,000 on Beacon Hill lobbyists.
State Rep. Martha “Marty” Walz, a Boston Democrat, wrote legislation that allowed Greenfield to open the Massachusetts Virtual Academy in 2010. She acknowledged that the language was imperfect and didn’t address issues of funding or oversight but said she couldn’t wait to craft a comprehensive plan.
“You do what you need to do sometimes to get the ball rolling,” said Walz, who accepted at least $2,600 in campaign contributions from K12, its executives or its lobbyists since 2008, according to the National Institute on Money in State Politics.
Amazingly, the article produced almost 900 comments from readers.
I think the article was nicely balanced although Chester Finn was quoted as saying that virtual schooling is less expensive than face-to-face schooling. He stated:
“They have no business trying to charge as much as the brick-and-mortar schools, at least over time,” said Finn, of the Fordham Institute, which has commissioned a study of the cost of online schools. “Once you’ve got the stuff that you’re going to use for fourth-grade math, for instance, you don’t really need to do much with it. And it should be cheaper.”
However, the reality is that it takes a good 5 years for a virtual school to become financially sustainable (Note that K-12 Inc was established in 2000 and the Florida Virtual School was established in 1997 and both took more than 5 years to figure out the financing model). Good online teachers (just like good face-to-face teachers) tweak their content and delivery a little bit each year. These things take time and money.
In the same issue, Jay Mathews wrote about how for-profit schools will survive. His column focused on for-profit colleges. It is important to note that funding for-profit colleges are different than funding K-12 schools – the funding mechanism for each is much different. It is difficult to compare funding colleges to K-12 schools, let alone compare funding between elementary schools and high schools.
In a follow up to the article, reporter Emma Brown blogged about the article to further clarify the issues about graduation and completion rates in K-12’s virtual schools. Founder Ron Packard explains that many students enter K-12, Inc schools already behind in credits and it is difficult to have a student graduate from high school in 4 years when they enter the school already behind more than a year. In addition, I would add that students choose to attend virtual schools and have already left a traditional public school – many because they have not been successful – and would probably not have graduated on time there either.
This narrative continues to play out in reports across the nation as I wrote about here, here and here. John Watson, author of the K-12 Keeping Pace with Online Learning documents, also weighed in about for-profit virtual charter schools last week. It is pretty amazing how much has been written about online schooling in the last month, much of which began with the report bashing online learning by the National Education Policy Center out of the University of Colorado, that was published on October 27.