Although online learning is growing in popularity all over the country, some districts are still hesitant about embracing the phenomenon because they're not sure exactly what they'll get. This was the reason given by 18 districts in Illinois recently when a non-profit called Virtual Learning Solutions proposed a virtual charter school that would be managed and operated by K12 Inc.
VLS is appealing the decisions to the state's highest authority on charter schools – the newly created Illinois Charter School Commission – on the grounds that online schools would provide the kind of flexible education opportunities to families in the state that have not been available up to now.
Opponents who are claiming that online schools are a blank slate are being a bit disingenuous. After all, K12, which was to be the manager of the proposed online charter, manages and operates similar schools in 29 states, including in the online charter pioneer Florida. Yet K12 is not without controversy, as there's an ongoing investigation in Florida on the company's use of improperly licensed teachers in its schools.
But according to Bill Mego, that is not the chief thing that makes K12-managed school a questionable investment. The problem, Mego explains, is that for an online school, there's precious little "online" in the model.
Students in elementary and middle online charter schools don't actually do very much online. Working from home, they study printed materials and take multiple choice tests administered by their "learning coaches," i.e. mom and dad. In high school, there are some online lessons, "virtual classrooms," and phone conversations with the state-certified teachers K12 hires to oversee the students by email or phone, but it's hardly cutting edge. And the teachers oversee a lot. For about half what the average suburban teacher is paid, K12 teachers reportedly supervise from 50 to 250 students. For each of these students, the company is paid some fraction of the money the school district would have received from taxes.
When the Fox Valley school was being discussed, the percentage most frequently bandied about was 84%, which would total about $10,500 per student — a significant amount of money to spend on schooling whose quality is questionable.
Mego lists a number of complaints associated with K12 schools including fudged attendance numbers, low achievement and unwarranted promotion.
Since many of the students who enroll have had difficulty in regular schools, it may not be surprising that the majority of schools perform below grade level and fail to make adequate yearly progress, but isn't that what they're supposed to remedy? In general, charter schools don't do any better than regular schools, primarily because they all employ the same failed system of external rewards, ranking, and fear of humiliation. Often, online schools are sold as refuges from bullying, that very preventable point on the descent into savagery that can begin in the early grades and can end with street gangs.