Virtual charters are getting a windfall, students are getting shortchanged

Virtual charter schools claim to specialize in education, but mostly they specialize in making profits with our tax dollars, and the pandemic is proving to be a windfall for them. Or, as one virtual charter executive put it, a “lasting tail wind.”

Contributing to that tail wind is the state of Texas, which has expanded its investment in virtual education through the Legislature’s recent enactment of SB15, which will allow school districts to receive state funding for virtual instruction for as much as 10 percent of their enrollments this year. The new law has some other restrictions, but – if the Legislature renews it in 2023 — it also will open the door to a broader expansion of virtual instruction after the pandemic subsides.

A recent report by the University of Colorado’s National Education Policy Center found that 63 percent of virtual for-profit schools – most of which are charters – were rated unacceptable by their states based on the most recent data available. They typically lagged behind other schools on such critical measures as student academic outcomes and graduation rates. And they had high student turnover.

But those failures haven’t dimmed the corporate enthusiasm for the tax cash cow, and that enthusiasm only increased after the pandemic struck in the spring of 2020.

“We believe the effects of COVID-19 will be a lasting tail wind to online education and especially to K-12’s business model,” one virtual company’s chief financial officer said in a call with investors at the outset of the pandemic, according to report by the Washington Post and the Hechinger Report.

The COVID resurgence has added to the virtual industry’s optimism. “A lot of the states that have spikes in delta variant, places like Texas, we just see sort of unprecedented demand,” another industry executive told investors in August.

For-profit virtual schools are spending millions of dollars marketing themselves to parents and seeing many more millions on tax dollars in return. Parents, concerned about their children’s safety while the pandemic remains dangerous, are signing their children up for virtual classes. Many, however, end up being disappointed and shortchanged. And their kids’ educations suffer because of minimal online instruction, under-staffing and other cost-cutting steps that emphasize profit over academic results.

Students learn best with in-person instruction. But while expanding online learning, Texas – namely Gov. Greg Abbott – has made in-person learning more dangerous for students and educators alike. Despite the advice of health experts and pleas of many local school officials, the governor has refused to rescind his order banning mask mandates in schools, even though some districts are defying him.

The more dangerous Texas schools remain, the more profits virtual schools will make.

Despite mediocre records, for-profit online charter schools are selling parents on staying virtual

Clay Robison


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