President-elect Donald Trump’s nominee for Education Secretary, Betsy DeVos, a prominent supporter of charter schools, said the time has come to “make education great again,” at a recent rally in Grand Rapids, Michigan. But it is not clear an approach as newfangled as it is controversial - cyber charter schools - will be part of her plan.
Cyber charter schools merge two types of reform - the charter school movement and online learning. Like traditional charter schools, cyber charters are considered public schools that deliver instructional material to students online and are paid for with state funds.
Cyber charter schools typically offer two approaches: students may attend virtual classrooms – they must be “in class” at a specific time and attendance is taken – or self-paced classes where students have a teacher to check in with.
Originating around the turn of the 21st century as a supplement to traditional public schools, cyber charters have grown as stand-alone options across the nation.
A 2015 report by the Evergreen Education Group, a consulting group that tracks online school practice, showed that 275,000 students were enrolled in cyber (virtual) charter schools in the 25 states.
Ashlyn Aiko Nelson, an associate professor and director of Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion in the School of Public and Environmental Affairs at Indiana University-Bloomington, said the virtual charter school movement began in Florida when Jeb Bush was governor, and initially did not characterize themselves as virtual charter schools.
“What they characterized themselves as was offering online virtual courses that students could take to supplement their educational opportunities in cases where districts did not have the capacity or ability to offer coursework,” Nelson said.
However, over time, students began gravitating to the virtual school’s program as a substitute rather than a complement to traditional public schools.
“Instead of being viewed as allies to traditional public schools, virtual schools began to be viewed as competition,” Nelson said.
Virtual schools typically tend to be more popular in areas where there aren't many public schools available, or in areas where parents are dissatisfied with the quality of education at their neighborhood schools.
The branching off of virtual learning into an independent schooling system under the umbrella of charter schools has drawn sharp criticism from supporters of traditional schools.
The Maine Education Association released a report in 2012 criticizing cyber charter schools, claiming online schooling hurts local school districts because it diverts state funds away from traditional public schools, which are then forced to raise property taxes.
“Virtual schools take funding away from public schools making it harder for our schools to give each child the top-notch education they deserve,” the report said.
Robert Fayfich, executive director of the Pennsylvania Coalition of Public Charter Schools, disagreed with the assertion and said traditional school defenders are attempting to shift blame for their own shortcomings.
“From my perspective, they are looking for a scapegoat to blame someone else for, in many cases, mismanagement of the district’s finances,” Fayfich said.
Approximately 34,000 students in Pennsylvania are enrolled in its 14 cyber schools, which draw students from all of the state's 67 counties.
A 2013 report by Commonwealth Foundation, Pennsylvania’s free-market think tank, found that per-pupil spending at cyber schools is about $2,500 less per year than at traditional public schools.
Fayfich said deficiencies within the public school system are the reason why parents are pursuing other options for their children.
“Traditional schools could close every charter school in the state by doing two things: Listening to why the parents feel that they need to leave the district school and changing in order to address those concerns,” Fayfich said.
Another sharp criticism cyber charter schools face is the claim that students do not perform as well in their studies as their counterparts in traditional schools – a point the Maine Education Association report raised.
According to the report, only 42% of virtual school students in Pennsylvania tested at grade level compared to 75% of brick-and-mortar school students.
“Online students are losing ground. Students who transfer to online programs from brick-and-mortar schools posted lower scores on annual state reading exams after entering their virtual classrooms,” the report said.
Otto V. Banks, executive director of REACH Alliance & REACH Foundation, sister grassroots coalitions dedicated to ensuring parental choice in education, said test scores don’t tell the entire story.
“The school’s test scores come from all students without regard to how long they have been enrolled, which can be misleading, essentially punishing the school for taking on the challenge of helping underperforming students,” he said, adding that virtual schools provide computer-enabled learning that helps to reach each child at his or her current level of ability.
“Virtual schools also liberate students from the tyranny of the clock, so a kid can spend as much time as is needed to focus on a subject and at any time of day,” he said.
An added advantage of virtual schools is accountability: parents can always remove their children from a virtual school and taking the funding with them, Banks said.
“It is a myth that cyber charter schools “cherry pick” the highest-achieving students,” Banks said. “The virtual schools with which I am familiar have an above-average number of students who qualify for free or reduced lunch, are members of minority groups, and/or have specific learning challenges.”
In states like Indiana, where there has been a very pro-school choice movement, cyber schooling is on the rise because it removes one of the barriers charter schools face, Nelson said.
“Once a charter school is authorized to operate, they receive funding on a per-pupil basis for children, but they do not receive a facility to operate in,” Nelson said. “So having a virtual school allows the charter school operators to get all of the per student funding without needing a physical facility.”