As U.S. children flock to virtual charter schools, states are struggling to catch up and develop rules to make sure the students get a real education and schools get the right funding.
The future of virtual schools is part of the larger school-choice debate seeing renewed attention since the installation of Education Secretary Betsy DeVos, an online charter investor and advocate who sees them as a valuable option for students.
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While some perform well, the sector has been plagued by accounts of low standards, mismanagement, and inflated participation counts at schools that are reimbursed based on the number of enrolled students. Ohio's largest online charter school, the Electronic Classroom of Tomorrow, this month lost the latest round of its battle over $60 million the state says is owed for enrollment that cannot be justified.
Findings of underperformance at e-schools have been so prevalent that even supporters have called for policymakers to intervene.
"There's overwhelming consensus that these schools are performing terribly poor and yet, you know, nothing's happening," said Gary Miron, a Western Michigan University professor who researches online charters for the National Education Policy Center at the University of Colorado and believes such schools can work, but not under the current model.
Nationwide, enrollment in virtual schools has tripled over the past decade, and some 278,000 students as young as kindergarteners were enrolled in 58 full-time online schools across 34 states for the 2015-16 school year, according to data from the policy center. Other groups' estimates put virtual enrollment even higher. Half the virtual schools are charters and the rest are district-run, but charters have most of the students.
The schools' supporters say they fill a gap by meeting the needs of nontraditional students — those with challenging schedules, severe health issues, troubles with focus or bullying, or who are working or traveling or parenting children of their own.
Ninth-grader Celiah Aker, 14, is an honors student who has attended the Electronic Classroom of Tomorrow since the fifth grade.
"I wanted the flexibility to do other things, instead of just school," Aker said. "I have a lot of friends who are in regular public school, and they always get bombarded with so many hours of homework. I get to hang with my family and go to sports events and go and do my dance classes."
Nowhere have regulators' struggles been on display more than Ohio, which ranks among the states with the most students enrolled in virtual charters. The state had broader charter-school rules but didn't outline many specific e-school standards or enrollment limits for them until more than a decade after ECOT opened.
Now the school is locked in a protracted legal battle with the state over how it tracks students' hours, a dispute that traces to before the state had any online charter regulations on the books. A hearing officer recently recommended the state education board take action to collect millions from the Electronic Classroom of Tomorrow due to undocumented enrollment.
Jeremy Aker, Celiah's dad, said implications that ECOT students are chronically absent and the school is undeserving of state assistance are discouraging for his daughter.
"You were a 4.0 student during the 2015-2016 school year, in the National Honor Society, and because you didn't sit logged into a screen for 5 hours a day, we're actually going to call you truant and we want our money back," he said.
Finding the balance has also tripped up other states.
In Colorado, where an Education Week investigation found only a quarter of the students at one online school were using the software on a typical day, recent Democratic legislative proposals to have the state certify authorizers of cyber schools and study data have fizzled without a full vote.
A lack of uniform attendance tracking also muddied the development of virtual schools in Oklahoma earlier this decade. One charter school, Epic, was referred to state fraud investigators for issues including how it counted students — though nothing came of the review. In 2015, legislators overhauled the law requiring closure of poor-performing charters, instituting a more rigorous application process and stepping up requirements for sponsors. Epic's performance rankings are now high. Republican Gov. Frank Keating is speaking at Epic's graduation next month.
States have been slow to respond to red flags, in part because lobbying by for-profit operators and other supporters hampered legislative proposals aimed at improving accountability, Miron said.
DeVos was herself a major donor to those efforts before becoming education secretary. What influence her appointment will have on states' efforts to regulate charter schools is not yet clear. The department didn't respond to interview requests.
In Ohio, state records show ECOT founder William Lager has donated about $765,000 to state-level campaigns. Nationwide, charter school owners, operators and advocacy groups have donated almost $89 million to state-level campaigns over the past decade, according to data collected by the nonprofit Institute for Money in State Politics.
A report last summer from the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools, the National Association of Charter School Authorizers and the nonprofit 50-State Campaign for Achievement Now called for policymakers and school authorizers to intervene to address problems with online charters.
"Left unchecked, these problems have the potential to overshadow the positive impacts this model currently has for some students," the report said.
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