Florida’s charter school law, which makes it easy to open charter schools and difficult to monitor them, has spurred a multimillion dollar industry and a school boom — all while leading to chronic governance problems and a higher-than-average rate of school failure.
Nationally, about 12 percent of all charter schools that have opened in the past two decades have shut down, according to the National Resource Center on Charter School Finance & Governance. In Florida, the failure rate is double, state records show.
The bulk of charter school problems have surfaced in states like Florida that have “a large number of charter schools and rapid growth,” said Gary Miron, an education professor at Western Michigan University who studies the charter school industry. In many cases, Miron said, the agencies charged with oversight were underfunded.
Experts say some of the problems, both financial and academic, could be avoided if charter school authorizers were stricter in issuing school charters. (In Florida, local school districts and colleges can authorize charter schools.)
“Florida has one of the most liberal laws as far as establishing a charter school goes,” said Jeffrey Grove, a research associate for the nonpartisan Southern Regional Educational Board.
Florida law also is hands-off when it comes to existing charter schools, giving operators the power to run schools with little oversight from the state or local school districts. Districts can close a charter school, but only if the school is in extreme financial distress or chronically low performing. Other than that, there is little a district can do when academic, financial or governance problems arise.
Nor online charter school companies:
By almost every educational measure, the Agora Cyber Charter School is failing.
Nearly 60 percent of its students are behind grade level in math. Nearly 50 percent trail in reading. A third do not graduate on time. And hundreds of children, from kindergartners to seniors, withdraw within months after they enroll.
By Wall Street standards, though, Agora is a remarkable success that has helped enrich K12 Inc., the publicly traded company that manages the school. And the entire enterprise is paid for by taxpayers.
Agora is one of the largest in a portfolio of similar public schools across the country run by K12. Eight other for-profit companies also run online public elementary and high schools, enrolling a large chunk of the more than 200,000 full-time cyberpupils in the United States.
The pupils work from their homes, in some cases hundreds of miles from their teachers. There is no cafeteria, no gym and no playground. Teachers communicate with students by phone or in simulated classrooms on the Web. But while the notion of an online school evokes cutting-edge methods, much of the work is completed the old-fashioned way, with a pencil and paper while seated at a desk.
Kids mean money. Agora is expecting income of $72 million this school year, accounting for more than 10 percent of the total anticipated revenues of K12, the biggest player in the online-school business. The second-largest, Connections Education, with revenues estimated at $190 million, was bought this year by the education and publishing giant Pearson for $400 million.
The business taps into a formidable coalition of private groups and officials promoting nontraditional forms of public education. The growth of for-profit online schools, one of the more overtly commercial segments of the school choice movement, is rooted in the theory that corporate efficiencies combined with the Internet can revolutionize public education, offering high quality at reduced cost.
How bad is K12 Inc? This bad:
The New York Times has spent several months examining this idea, focusing on K12 Inc. A look at the company’s operations, based on interviews and a review of school finances and performance records, raises serious questions about whether K12 schools — and full-time online schools in general — benefit children or taxpayers, particularly as state education budgets are being slashed.
Instead, a portrait emerges of a company that tries to squeeze profits from public school dollars by raising enrollment, increasing teacher workload and lowering standards.
Current and former staff members of K12 Inc. schools say problems begin with intense recruitment efforts that fail to filter out students who are not suited for the program, which requires strong parental commitment and self-motivated students. Online schools typically are characterized by high rates of withdrawal.
Teachers have had to take on more and more students, relaxing rigor and achievement along the way, according to interviews. While teachers do not have the burden of a full day of classes, they field questions from families, monitor students’ progress and review and grade schoolwork. Complaints about low pay and high class loads — with some high school teachers managing more than 250 students — have prompted a unionization battle at Agora, which has offices in Wayne, Pa.
A look at a forthcoming study by researchers at Western Michigan University and the National Education Policy Center shows that only a third of K12’s schools achieved adequate yearly progress, the measurement mandated by federal No Child Left Behind legislation.
Some teachers at K12 schools said they felt pressured to pass students who did little work. Teachers have also questioned why some students who did no class work were allowed to remain on school rosters, potentially allowing the company to continue receiving public money for them. State auditors found that the K12-run Colorado Virtual Academy counted about 120 students for state reimbursement whose enrollment could not be verified or who did not meet Colorado residency requirements. Some had never logged in.
“What we’re talking about here is the financialization of public education,” said Alex Molnar, a research professor at the University of Colorado Boulder School of Education who is affiliated with the education policy center. “These folks are fundamentally trying to do to public education what the banks did with home mortgages.”
That last paragraph gets to heart of so much of education reform - declare traditional public schools failing, blame the "failure" on teachers and unions, de-unionize the system, bring in all kinds of non-traditional (and privately run) alternatives, cash in on public education dollars.
Of course to do this, the pols have to be paid off in graft and the Times article points out that many local and national politicians are paid off, former Education Secretary and degenerate gambler William Bennett being the most prominent.
The media, too, is often on the payroll or in bed with the for-profit ed companies (NBC doing work with the University of Phoenix, the Washington Post owns Kaplan University.)
So no wonder this stuff gets pushed - the pols are on board, the media are on board, everybody's cashing in and all they have to do is make traditional public schools and unionized teachers the villains of the piece.
With the media and the politicians working for them, that hasn't been hard, has it?