Cy­ber char­ters are failed ex­per­i­ment

The Detroit News - - Front Page - Paula Her­bart is pres­i­dent of the Michi­gan Ed­u­ca­tion As­so­ci­a­tion.

If an ex­per­i­ment fails, the rea­son­able re­sponse is to end it and try some­thing dif­fer­ent. Not so re­gard­ing cy­ber char­ter schools, based on the ac­tions of law­mak­ers who con­tinue to fully fund these schools in the face of mount­ing ev­i­dence that they are a spec­tac­u­lar fail­ure at im­prov­ing aca­demic achieve­ment. In 2009, Michi­gan be­gan a small pi­lot pro­gram with for-profit, cy­ber char­ters. In 2012, long be­fore suf­fi­cient data was avail­able to as­sess the pi­lot’s suc­cess, Gov. Sny­der and the Leg­is­la­ture ex­panded the num­ber of cy­ber char­ters.

Now, af­ter years of ex­pe­ri­ence and in­vest­ment, we know that was a mis­take.

In re­cent rank­ings, the Michi­gan Vir­tual Academy was at the 3rd per­centile in aca­demic per­for­mance — 97 per­cent of Michi­gan schools per­formed bet­ter. Michi­gan Vir­tual Academy is op­er­ated by K-12, Inc., the largest player in the for-profit cy­ber char­ter in­dus­try.

A study by the RAND Corp. and New York Univer­sity re­leased ear­lier this year showed that on­line-only schools tend to at­tract and harm our most vul­ner­a­ble stu­dents. The study found that Ohio stu­dents with low test scores who at­tend cy­ber char­ter schools fell even fur­ther be­hind. High achiev­ing stu­dents per­form bet­ter, but still achieve lower re­sults than they would have if they had en­rolled in tra­di­tional schools.

In the “Na­tional Study of On­line Char­ter Schools,” Stan­ford Univer­sity found that cy­ber char­ter stu­dents re­ceived the equiv­a­lent of 180 fewer days of learn­ing in math and 72 fewer days of in­struc­tion in read­ing than their peers in tra­di­tional schools.

The small mi­nor­ity of stu­dents who suc­ceed in cy­ber schools, ac­cord­ing to the data, are self­mo­ti­vated, with strong parental in­volve­ment. Un­for­tu­nately, for-profit com­pa­nies like K-12, Inc., fo­cus their mar­ket­ing and ag­gres­sive re­cruit­ment ef­forts on stu­dents and fam­i­lies who do not fit that model, ul­ti­mately harm­ing those stu­dents whom they claim to help.

Here in Michi­gan, leg­is­la­tors con­tinue to ig­nore the poor aca­demic achieve­ment of cy­ber schools and pour mil­lions into this failed ex­per­i­ment. Even Gov. Sny­der rec­og­nized that fund­ing for cy­ber char­ters needed to be scaled back when he pro­posed in last year’s ed­u­ca­tion bud­get that they re­ceive only 80 per­cent of nor­mal per-pupil fund­ing — ac­knowl­edg­ing that cy­ber char­ters have a frac­tion of the over­head that tra­di­tional brick and mor­tar schools face.

Un­for­tu­nately, the Leg­is­la­ture re­jected the gov­er­nor’s pro­posal — but many from both par­ties in Lans­ing are hop­ing he pushes again for this change next year.

In the end, op­po­si­tion to this change likely stems from money — specif­i­cally lob­by­ing and cam­paign funds spent by groups like K-12 Inc. In 2012, the same year that Michi­gan and many other states ex­panded their cy­ber school pro­grams, K-12 Inc. spent nearly $30 mil­lion on lob­by­ing and mar­ket­ing. For K-12 Inc., that was a wise in­vest­ment, as laws were changed and en­roll­ment soared at its cy­ber schools — as did their prof­its.

That could be a fac­tor in a new piece of leg­is­la­tion, Se­nate Bill 574, which would give for-profit char­ter and cy­ber schools a cut of re­gional en­hance­ment mil­lages ap­proved by vot­ers to sup­port lo­cal neigh­bor­hood schools. If this leg­is­la­tion passes, there is no guar­an­tee that this fund­ing would ever be used to help stu­dent achieve­ment — it could go to al­ready ex­ces­sive cor­po­rate prof­its, share­hold­ers and CEO salaries.

There is a place for on­line ed­u­ca­tion. Pub­lic schools have used dis­tance learn­ing tech­nol­ogy for years — es­pe­cially in more ru­ral and re­mote dis­tricts where cour­ses like Ad­vanced Place­ment, for­eign languages and ca­reer-tech­ni­cal classes are not avail­able. And blend­ing on­line learn­ing into a class­room set­ting is a proven suc­cess, un­like on­line-only cy­ber char­ter schools.

Pol­icy mak­ers should take note of the grow­ing ev­i­dence of the fail­ure of for-profit cy­ber char­ter schools and end this ex­per­i­ment — now. La­bor Voices col­umns are writ­ten on a ro­tat­ing ba­sis by United Auto Work­ers Pres­i­dent Den­nis Wil­liams, Team­sters Pres­i­dent James Hoffa, Michi­gan AFL-CIO Pres­i­dent Ron Bieber and Michi­gan Ed­u­ca­tion As­so­ci­a­tion Pres­i­dent Paula Her­bart.


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