Oklahoma Joins Ranks of States and Agencies Cracking Down on Virtual Charter Schools

Oklahoma Joins Ranks of States and Agencies Cracking Down on Virtual Charter Schools

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Image credit: Shutterstock/fatmawati achmad zaenuri

The Oklahoma Department of Education is moving to shut down a virtual charter school, ABLE Charter, for the first time ever, according to Oklahoma Watch. The Statewide Virtual Charter School Board, the organization within the Department that regulates these types of schools, has moved to end its contract with the one-year-old school for noncompliance several laws. 

The allegations, the Watch writes, are "inadequate financial reporting, failure to comply with the Open Meeting Act, inability to maintain a four-member governing board and inadequate organization." Kenneth Kuczynski, ABLE's superintendent, told the Watch that he feels the cancellation is unwarranted given that the school has only been operating for one year. He also pointed out that ABLE is a nonprofit school attempting to serve homeless students, unlike many other virtual charter schools run by for-profit companies.

The Watch reports that, of the 93 students enrolled at ABLE at the start of the 2015-2016 school year, just 12 remained until the end of the year, a steep dropout rate. The state is also concerned that the school did not open an administrative office until several weeks into the school year.

Oklahoma is one of many states investigating and castigating virtual charters. California recently arrived at a disputed settlement with for-profit online charter operator K12 Inc and the affiliated California Virtual Schools (CAVA). The amount is the subject of debate. The Attorney General's office stated that the settlement is for $168.5 million; K12 Inc disputed that figure and said it is a $2.5 million settlement. Near the end of June, the California Senate passed a bill that would ban online charter schools from hiring for-profit companies to provide instructional services. 

The impetus for both the settlement and the bill arises from an impassioned Bay Area News Group investigation, which wrote that K12 Inc falsely reported the achievement and attendance records of students at CAVA to reap tens of millions of dollars in state funding. The news organization also alleged that that K12 Inc pocketed almost 60 percent of the funding allotted to the CAVA nonprofit online schools for itself. K12 Inc hasn't had a quiet year. It faced recent internal outcries because its investors were unhappy with the executive compensation, which led to the naming of a new CEO, Stuart Udell.

Online charters as a group are not strangers to difficulty. In 2015, Mathematica Policy, Stanford's Center for Research on Education Outcomes and the Center for Reinventing Public Education released a report simply titled, "Online Charter School Students Falling Behind Their Peers." The researcher groups found that online charters faced low student engagement and aggravated that by giving students far less face-to-face time with teachers than conventional schools. The three organizations asserted that the 200 schools they studied placed a large burden on parents to monitor their children. Most pointedly, the report said that online charter school students were falling behind their brick-and-mortar counterparts in almost every category. The National Education Policy Center penned a similar report.

Nor are charters closing ranks around one another. In June of 2016, the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools, the 50-State Campaign for Achievement Now (50CAN) and the National Association of Charter School Authorizers (NACSA)—all pro-charter groups—released recommendations for improving virtual charters. Titled, "A Call to Action to Improve the Quality of Full-Time Virtual Charter Schools," the proposal requests stronger regulatory oversight from authorizers, stricter standards and penalties for not adhering to them and reforming funding based on actual costs and performance. K12 Inc responded with displeasure, decrying the report as "not collaborative."

“Some full-time virtual charter schools can effectively serve the unique needs of the students they enroll. Overall, though, these schools are not producing great outcomes,” Nina Rees, president and CEO of the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools, wrote in the report.

But nowhere has the battle over charter quality become more embittered than Ohio. The most recent news from the Buckeye state's education conflicts is that Ohio's largest online charter school operator, the Electronic Classroom of Tomorrow (ECOT), has failed to stall an audit of its financials and attendance records in court. ECOT received $108 million from the state for the 2015-2016 school year but believes that the state has since changed its rules, which could cut that dollar amount if the state goes forward with the audit. The Ohio Attorney General's office alleges that ECOT billed the state for more hours than students completed. The New York Times reported that, of every 100 students enrolled at ECOT, 80 do not graduate.

The quality of the schools themselves is not the only thing in question and under investigation. Ohio education advocates are in uproar about the oversight of virtual charter schools. Ohio charter schools receive grades from A to F on their quality from the Department of Education, and appointed overseers—groups or individuals (sometimes called sponsors)—are tasked with improving the schools or losing their positions as overseers. Some Ohio charter school overseers, however, have been given passing ratings by the Department of Education, Cleveland.com reports, despite failing online charter schools in the overseers' purview. The Ohio Department, for reasons unexplained, did not factor in the failing grades given to  online charter schools in its evaluation of the overseers. If the Department the overseers would have received poor ratings. Instead, one overseer group received a 100, a perfect score, despite a failing charter in its portfolio.

These skirmishes are part of a much larger debate throughout Ohio over the quality and governance of charter schools. The debate even hounded John Kasich as he vied for the Republican nomination, hitting especially hard when the state revised the number of failing charters to 57, not the six originally reported. Sponsorship is at the crux of it. Eleven charter schools lost their state funding and their sponsors as they sank deeper into failing territory this past school year. The Ohio legislature has enacted laws to prevent underperforming schools from seeking new sponsorship after receiving a failing grade for a certain amount of time. Sponsorship is required under Ohio law for a school to run. A state auditor also found that, on average, one in three students in dropout reform school attended school on any given day, and the state was still paying for those students.

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