It’s time to be pragmatic about online charter schools

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Online charter schools have been front-page material in every major Ohio newspaper for the past two years. The coverage, largely focused on the Electronic Classroom of Tomorrow (ECOT), has featured the very public funding dispute between ECOT and the Ohio Department of Education, a host of legal proceedings, the school’s mid-year closure and subsequent displacement of 12,000 students, and the political rush from both parties to take credit or assess blame for the entire situation.

Last month, the General Assembly passed two pieces of legislation (Senate Bill 216 and House Bill 87) that, among other things, seek to address some of the issues that have plagued online charters in Ohio. A quick overview of the changes can be found in this summary of education-related legislation for the first half of 2018. The online charter provisions, while generally recognized as being positive, also drew criticism for not going far enough. This is likely because another piece of legislation—House Bill 707, which was introduced in mid-June by Republican Representatives Reineke and Faber—had even stronger accountability provisions, many of which came from recommendations made by Ohio Auditor of State Dave Yost.

One measure included in HB 707 that didn’t make either SB 216 or HB 87 would have required ODE to adopt rules allowing online charter schools to disenroll students—with some due process protections—for not “actively participating in learning opportunities.” This is something I strongly support and recommended in a previous post.

My support was premised upon a few key ideas. First, the mode of instruction—online versus a traditional classroom—creates real differences in how students and teachers can interact. Second, data strongly suggest that some students don’t perform well in an online setting. Third, when a student isn’t learning in an online setting, the school is more limited in the types of interventions it can use. Fourth, even if the school knows there’s a problem and the student isn’t engaged, its hands are largely tied because the student is meeting minimum attendance requirements. In such cases, students are being academically harmed and taxpayer dollars are being wasted.

My recommendation resulted in thoughtful pushback from smart people whom I respect, so I believe it’s deserving of additional exploration. Here are the objections that gave them pause.

Issue 1: Charters are public schools and should have to serve everyone.

They are, and they should. The proposal in question still allows any student to enroll in an online school. It just gives the school another tool, the threat of disenrollment, to get parents and students to engage. Compare this to magnet schools, which are public schools that are granted a dispensation that allows them to serve students with a specific interest or aptitude and more often than not use a front-end screening mechanism for admission purposes. Online schools also serve a specific educational need, which will often vary from student to student. So while this policy would be atypical for a public school, it wouldn’t be unprecedented.

Issue 2: Online charters will cherry-pick students and, in doing so, will disproportionately exclude disadvantaged students.

Some national leaders have proposed a structure in which online charters would screen students before enrollment, and would deny admission to students they deemed unlikely to be successful. This would indeed have an element of cherry picking; however, as alluded to when describing magnet schools, there’s a subtle but important distinction between front-end and back-end screening mechanisms. A back-end screening framework gives every student the opportunity to choose the school and enroll. It’s only the failure to actively participate after being enrolled that would prevent a student from remaining in the school. The aspect of this objection that troubles me is the notion that we are doing students a favor by keeping them in an online school if they aren’t doing any work. Just imagine the impact on a student of doing virtually no work for several years, and the limited ability of the teacher to intervene because of the online nature of the relationship. It could very well create an unrecoverable gap, especially for disadvantaged students.

Issue 3: Schools will be incentivized to disenroll students as a means of evading accountability.

The argument here is that online charters will disenroll their poorly performing students in an attempt to appear more successful on state report cards. On its face, I see where this concern originates. But there are competing incentives at work here. Online charter schools are funded based on enrollment. If a student is disenrolled, then the funding leaves as well. Despite some of the well-publicized academic struggles, online charters post high enough state test scores that they are unlikely to be closed for academic performance. Why would a school disenroll a large number of struggling students to improve performance on the state report card, if the school wasn’t at risk of closure and every student disenrolled resulted in less revenue?

Issue 4: Brick-and-mortar schools can't engage every student either.

This is unfortunately very true. I’m sure there are some traditional public schools and brick-and-mortar charter public schools that would like to disenroll students who aren’t completing assignments or “actively participating.” The advantage schools with a physical location have is the slate of interventions available when students aren’t engaged. It’s easier—but surely not easy—for a classroom teacher or building principal to take steps to address inactive but physically present students. If we fail to acknowledge that the mode of instruction in online learning has some significant differences with a traditional classroom, then we run a significant risk of putting long-term student success in jeopardy.

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Online charter schools are public schools. Like all public schools, they should serve everyone, avoid cherry picking, be held accountable, and not be given any special accommodations. In this situation, as well meaning as the concerns are, they miss the forest for the trees.

At the end of the day, online charter schools have the same purpose as other schools: helping students to learn and acquire the skills necessary to lead a successful life. The primary difference between the two is the manner in which they deliver instruction. This difference allows for flexibility and personalization, but it also demands more responsibility from students choosing this model. Ohio needs to revisit this recommendation and allow schools to take steps to ensure disengaged students can receive the support they need to be successful, even if that means attending a different school. This is a pragmatic approach to ensure that online charters schools—very specialized public schools—can serve students well.

 
 
Chad L. Aldis
Chad L. Aldis is the Vice President for Ohio Policy and Advocacy of the Thomas B. Fordham Institute.