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Online Charter Schools Are Not a Solution to Education in a Pandemic

U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos speaking at the 2017 Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) in National Harbor, Maryland.
U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos speaking at the 2017 Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) in National Harbor, Maryland. (Photo: Gage Skidmore)

Coronavirus and racism combined with online charters would create a plague of injustice that will never be wiped out.

“Instead of going to school every morning, what if school could come to you?” an ad asks enticingly, promising students “online personalized learning” tailored to their specific needs. It’s one of hundreds of active Facebook ads run by K12 Inc., the largest for-profit virtual charter school provider in the United States. As public schools rose to the challenge of educating students online during the pandemic, corporations like K12 Inc., whose stock price has been climbing since mid-March, were licking their chops at the prospect of moving kids online permanently. Though virtual charter schools perform dismally academically and are plagued by scandal, the goal is for them to replace traditional brick-and-mortar public schools in an effort to privatize education. While this would harm students, it would most egregiously damage Black and Latino children, who’ve already been disproportionately impacted by the coronavirus, due to structural inequities such as lack of access to computers and internet service, as well as inconsistent health care and crowded housing.

K12 Inc. was founded in 2000 by investment banker Ron Packard, “junk bond king” Michael Milken, and Bill Bennett, the U.S. secretary of education under President Ronald Reagan, who was also the company’s first board chairman. Betsy DeVos was an early investor in K12 who held shares in the company until she became education secretary in 2017. The idea behind virtual charter schools was promising: to serve a varied group of students who might benefit from the flexibility of learning online, from those who struggled academically, to others with health challenges, to athletes and performers, as Mary Gifford, a senior vice president for K12, explained in a 2016 article in Education Week. But the venture quickly fell into corruption by putting profits over performance and using taxpayer dollars as its personal piggy bank, as a 2017 report by the American Federation of Teachers detailed.

Like brick-and-mortar charter schools, virtual charters are publicly funded but privately managed, raking in more than $1 billion taxpayer dollars each year while functioning with minimal oversight. Most are for-profit entities in a market dominated by K12 and its chief competitor, the Pearson-operated Connections Academy. Full-time virtual schools served about 300,000 students nationwide in 2017-18, according to the National Education Policy Center.

Darcy Bedortha, who taught at the K12-operated Insight School of Oregon and wrote about it in Education Week, described a toxic environment where students logged into class erratically and staff meetings focused more on recruiting students than helping those who already attended and were struggling. Teachers were bullied by administrators and paid abysmally while working 60-hour weeks and carrying heavy loads—at one point, Bedortha wrote, she juggled 476 kids in 30 different classes. Technical glitches were numerous, dropout rates were high, and teachers were pressured to pass students who did no work. Crushed that she couldn’t adequately support her students, many of whom were survivors of abuse and neglect, Bedortha quit after 15 months. Her story may be common across K12 schools and other virtual charters, but it seems that teachers rarely speak out for fear of retribution.

A growing number of studies have exposed virtual charter schools’ ineffectiveness. Scholars from the University of Kentucky, the University of Washington and the University of Notre Dame published a study in March in Educational Researcher in which they found that students who switch from public schools to virtual charters saw test scores in math and English plummet, and the lower scores endured over time. A 2018 report by the Center for American Progress, which studied virtual charters run by K12, Connections Academy, and other for-profits across five states, discovered that the virtual charters graduate about half their students, making them among the lowest-performing schools in their state. And a 2015 study by the Center for Research on Education Outcomes at Stanford University found that online charter students lagged behind traditional public school students by 180 days of learning in math and 72 days of learning in reading, concluding that “Academic benefits from online charter schools are currently the exception rather than the rule.”

Despite these outcomes, virtual charter schools are proliferating in states with high levels of poverty and numbers of Black and Latino students, according to interdisciplinary scholar Noliwe Rooks. It’s a “business strategy to go after kids who would demand the least from their educational experience, which ultimately yields increased profits for K12 Inc.,” according to Luis Huerta, associate professor at Teachers College-Columbia University.

Virtual charters target at-risk students by spending big bucks on advertising, recruitment, and lobbying efforts. K12 spent more than $12 million taxpayer dollars on political contributions and lobbying in the past decade, according to Education Week, and nearly $38 million on advertising in 2018, according to the aforementioned report by the Center for American Progress. It also spent almost $28 million on the compensation of five top executives in 2019. K12 Inc. topped $1 billion in revenues last year.

It rakes in cash because of an insidious network of corporations, politicians, and lobbying groups who are privatizing education through charter schools and vouchers, and by swapping teachers with education technology, which denies students the relationships with teachers that are essential for academic success. Sometimes it also compromises students’ privacy, as Bloomberg has reported.

Education Secretary Betsy DeVos has close ties not only to K12, but also to the conservative American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC), which drafts model legislation on education, including regulatory freedom for charter schools. DeVos was the chair of the American Federation for Children, which is a sponsor of ALEC. K12 is also a funder of ALEC, as Nick Surgey reports, and K12’s Kevin P. Chavous was a board member of the American Federation for Children. K12 executives Don Lee and Tom Bolvin are involved in ALEC in various capacities.

ALEC’s education task force worked with K12 Inc. and Connections Academy in 2005 to draft the Virtual Public Schools Act, which opened up public schools to for-profit online corporations and allowed these virtual schools to receive the same per-pupil funding as brick-and-mortar schools despite not incurring the facility expenses that brick-and-mortar schools have. The task force in 2016 drafted the Statewide Online Education Act, which allows students to earn high school graduation credits through publicly funded online classes.

Loose state charter laws have enabled online schools to proliferate with little accountability. In 2016, then-California Attorney General Kamala Harris reached an $8.5 million settlement with K12’s California Virtual Academy, which she accused of false advertising, deceiving parents, and providing subpar instruction. But K12 and California Virtual Academy, or CAVA, have not admitted to any wrongdoing as part of the settlement. While enrollment at CAVA declined for two years after the settlement, according to the California Department of Education, it rose in the 2018-2019 school year and again in 2019-2020. While enrollment data for the 2020-2021 school year is not yet available, a message on CAVA’s website states: “Due to overwhelming interest, we are no longer accepting applications at this time,” implying that enrollment has continued to rise during the pandemic.

Nicholas Trombetta, the founder of Pennsylvania Cyber Charter School, which is unaffiliated with K12, received just 20 months in prison in 2018 for tax conspiracy after he moved $8 million from the school to a network of businesses he created and failed to pay $437,632 in taxes. Among the personal luxuries he used taxpayer money for were a corporate jet and sprawling real estate, which he hasn’t had to account for.

William Lager, the founder of Ohio’s Electronic Classroom of Tomorrow (ECOT), contributed to Republican politicians including John Kasich and served on Jeb Bush’s Digital Learning Council, which advocated for online charters like ECOT. Lager got $1 billion in public money to operate his school (which had a 39.6 percent graduation rate as of 2017) for 17 years, until the state realized he was overbilling $80 million for “ghost students” who never actually logged in. The school shut down in January 2018, leaving the 12,000 students who did attend, some of whom were homeless, scrambling to find another school. It’s unlikely that Ohio will recover its money, according to Bill Phillis, the head of the Ohio Coalition for Equity and Adequacy of School Funding.

Privatizers are no strangers to disaster capitalism. The DeVos and Koch-funded Heritage Foundation helped turn post-Katrina New Orleans into an all-charter district containing both brick-and-mortar charters as well as virtual schools powered by K12 Inc. Nearly half of all schools were rated a D or F in 2019. Since New Orleans’ schools serve mostly economically disadvantaged students of color, it’s difficult not to view the charterization of schools as a racist attack. Then again, racism is ingrained in school privatization and K12—Bill Bennett, the co-founder and first chair of K12, was forced to step down from the company after he said that aborting Black babies would reduce crime.

In a more recent example of disaster capitalism, a number of brick-and-mortar charter schools, some of which have billionaire backers like Mike Bloomberg and Bill Gates as well as tens of millions of dollars in assets, have tapped the Paycheck Protection Program, which was intended to help small businesses and nonprofits stay afloat during the pandemic. At the same time, many minority-owned businesses across the country were denied federal emergency aid, as Jeff Bryant reports for the Independent Media Institute. Furthermore, DeVos is using $180 million in federal coronavirus relief money to expand virtual charter schools. The Heritage Foundation is also promoting virtual charters, and K12’s Kevin Chavous is on the Heritage-funded National Coronavirus Recovery Commission, which is working with ALEC to draft policy recommendations on pandemic recovery.

In other words, the commission, whose premature push to reopen America endangers lives, is run by the same people spreading the scourge of online charter schools.

Public schools are especially vulnerable now. During an April earnings call for investors, K12 said they’re working with ALEC and, as Indigo Olivier of In These Times reported, “state legislators and school districts to expand the market for online learning this fall” since many districts will not resume in-person teaching by then. Furthermore, Olivier continued, K12 “spent more than $100,000 lobbying Congress this year for ‘education issues related to the COVID-19 pandemic.’” In addition to the ads they’re running on Facebook, K12 is also advertising on CNN. (It has a history of targeting children directly with commercials on Nickelodeon and the Cartoon Network.)

Though K12 Inc. has seen an increase in enrollment recently, the pandemic has proven that screens are no match for teachers. In June, research projected that by September, students will have fallen behind substantially academically, with the most severe losses experienced by Black and Latino students who’ve already been disproportionately affected by the pandemic.

A move to virtual charter schools would further exacerbate inequity—coronavirus and racism combined with online charters would create a plague of injustice that will never be wiped out.

Some Americans are aware of privatizers’ modus operandi and are fighting back. StrikeReadySF, a teachers’ group in San Francisco, is protesting online learning and profit-driven private companies. More than 15,000 New Yorkers signed a petition objecting to Governor Andrew Cuomo’s partnership with Bill Gates to “reimagine” schools that would presumably lead to virtual charter schools, which New York has avoided thus far. And the rebellion extends to brick-and-mortar charters: More than 400 current and former students, teachers, and parents at New York’s Success Academy Charter Schools are sharing stories of racism on social media in the wake of George Floyd’s murder, including a white assistant principal putting up a bulletin board of effigies of Black bodies hanging upside down from a tree. Success’s spokesperson just resigned due to the school’s racist and abusive practices.

Many people, however, are too traumatized and disoriented by the pandemic—not to mention the continued deaths of innocent Black people by the police—to be fully aware of how intensely privatizers are targeting public schools.

Virtual charters cannot replace traditional brick-and-mortar public schools, not just because of the hands-on education public schools provide, but also because they offer meals, health screenings, after-school programs, and other vital services to children. Public schools are the heart of their communities and the foundation of our democracy.

This article was produced by Our Schools, a project of the Independent Media Institute.


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