Wednesday, February 22, 2012

E.D. of Michigan Association of School Boards weighs in on cyber schools

COMMENTARY — Cyber schools: Show me the data
Kathy Hayes
Posted:  02/20/2012 6:38 AM
Michigan’s education policy is being driven by the mantra of parental choice. On the surface, policy that gives parents alternatives for their children’s education is laudable. However, if those alternative choices have no demonstrable evidence of providing a better education, or in fact, are substandard to traditional public education, isn’t it incumbent upon our legislature to protect our students? Just as consumers are protected from substandard products through strict regulation and research, we should also expect this same level of protection for one of our most important rights-public education.

Senate Bill 619 allows for unlimited expansion of cyber schools. Current law restricts cyber schools to two contracts with limited enrollment. The legislature wisely determined that since cyber schools are a fairly new concept in education, it’s important they be regulated to determine their effectiveness. Unfortunately, despite the fact that the performance of these schools is below average, the legislature is very  close to allowing the proliferation of cyber schools. Cyber schools have been in existence in Colorado, Arizona, Pennsylvania, Florida, Virginia and others. The reports and literature on the performance — and profit – of these schools should concern us all.

Most cyber schools are operated by for-profit companies that discovered there’s great financial gain in public education. Their schools are financed by the same public tax dollars that brick-and-mortar public schools receive. One would expect the cost of doing business for a cyber school would be less expensive since they don’t have the expenses of building and maintaining facilities, transportation or restrictions on class size. And still, they receive the same, or more, per pupil dollars and compete for the same funds in our already financially strapped system.

The evidence is clear that educational management organizations are making a substantial profit. K12 Inc., one of the largest providers of virtual schools, had revenue of $522 million according to securities filings. Its net income after a series of acquisitions was $12.8 million and its CEO, Ronald J. Packard, earned $2.6 million in total compensation.

The fact that companies have figured out a way into public education as a way of making a profit wouldn’t disturb me if evidence showed they outperform traditional public schools. Instead, we see the national expansion of virtual schools with more than 200,000 students enrolled despite the absence of data on their effectiveness.

Public schools in Michigan have already embraced online learning as a way of delivering advanced placement, remedial and credit recovery classes; and as a second opportunity for dropouts, pregnant teens and expelled students. And, still adhering to strict guidelines and accountability measures. This blended learning option needs to be expanded and supported.

We’re asking the Legislature to study the performance and value of cyber schools. We can all learn a great deal from what has occurred in other states. I encourage legislators and the public to read “Online K-12 Schooling in the U.S.: Uncertain Private Ventures in Need of Public Regulation,” “How Online Learning Companies Bought America’s Schools and Profits” and “Questions at Online Charter Schools.” At the very least, the information in these articles should cause legislators to proceed with caution before passing legislation that could harm students for years to come. If we can’t count on them to protect our children, who can we count on?        

—Kathy Hayes is executive director of the Michigan Association of School Boards.