Saturday, November 7, 2015

Online Charters. .. . One of the Worst Ways to Spend our School Taxes!

A new study by CREDO, the Center for Research on Education Outcomes based at Stanford University, finds that students attending online charter schools across the nation perform at significantly lower levels than comparable students in traditional public schools.

The study found that the online charter schools in Louisiana perform on average at the lowest level of all 17 states operating online charter schools. Louisiana now has two online charter schools supported by our tax dollars. They are Louisiana Connections Academy and Louisiana Virtual Charter School. These schools are allowed to recruit public school students from anywhere in the state and they then receive the MFP money dedicated to each such student.

I was shocked to find that the study concludes (see pages 26 and 27 of the CREDO report) that on average students attending online charter schools in Louisiana lost over a year of instruction compared to students attending traditional public schools for each year they attended the online charter! 

Valerie Strauss of The Washington Post summarizes the findings in this way: "It is literally as if the kid did not go to school for an entire year!"

The study shows that students in Louisiana's online charter schools scored .28 of a standard deviation lower in reading than comparable students in traditional public schools. That equated to 200 fewer days of instruction. Louisiana online students scored .34 of a standard deviation lower than comparable students in math. That equated to 240 fewer days of instruction in math.

Most of the for-profit online charter schools in other states also had negative results!

In Louisiana, online charter schools receive 90% of the per pupil MFP allocation that would have been allocated to their home district schools. But Louisiana's online charter schools save thousands of dollars on each student based on a business model that does not require school buildings, school and classroom upkeep, utilities, transportation to schools, the need to provide clerical services, and other support services. The charter school operators do not participate in the teacher retirement system saving approximately 25 percent of payroll. With no restrictions on spending imposed by our legislature, they can convert some of these savings to advertising to constantly recruit students and the rest goes to profit.

As I was writing this, a commercial just came over my radio advertising the Louisiana Connections Academy with this message. "Connections Academy, providing online education to k-12 students for students needing 'extra attention'".

So with this "extra attention" students get less education in a school year than they would have gotten by just skipping school for a full year! To my knowledge parents of these students have no way of knowing that their child got a "worse than nothing" education. We are a consumer oriented society and our decisions are often driven more by advertising than by facts and data. Meanwhile our Louisiana taxpayers are contributing in the neighborhood of $10,000 per child for absolutely nothing! Under the leadership of our absentee Governor Jindal, our legislators voted for this use of our school tax money several years ago. In addition, our State Board of Education (BESE) and our State Department of Education under the leadership of Superintendent John White have allowed these private companies to take our money for zero progress (on average).

I met with John White over two years ago and asked him how he planned to insure that the new Course Choice providers and the virtual school providers would comply with Louisiana's mandatory school attendance law? That law requires local schools to take attendance of students every day and to track down and educate any students not attending regularly. In traditional schools, students cannot get credit for courses if they have more than 10 unexcused absences in one semester. He responded that the new approach he favored would be to simply focus on results rather than the statistics of school attendance. So my question now is, "If the result of this approach produces less than nothing, how does the LDOE justify continued payment of my tax dollars to these operators?"

I have felt from the very beginning that this model of delivery of K-12 education was a bad one and that for most students it would not be effective. On the other hand many local school districts provide their students with online courses which are carefully monitored by local teachers. Depending on the type of student enrolled, online instruction can be successful. My own grandson took a couple of online courses in the Zachary school system and tested very well at the end of the course and got full credits. But he happened to be an exceptionally well motivated student and he received close supervision. The for-profit model of online schooling simply does not work for many less motivated students partly because it is very difficult to insure proper student engagement. In fact the CREDO study cites a survey of principals of online schools which lists the lack of engagement of students and parents as the most serious concern of the school administrators. Yet they can't seem to correct the problem.

I have had email conversations with one teacher who works for one of the Louisiana online charters and believe her to be sincere and dedicated to providing good service to her assigned students. The problem is not necessarily with the teachers.

This is a scenario of what I believe often happens: The student signs on at 8:00 am from a charter supplied computer at his home and begins his lessons. At 8:30 he takes an open ended break for breakfast. So at 9:30 he signs back on. At 10:00 the phone rings and he stops to talk with a friend for 45 minutes. Then he switches to an online game site and plays for a couple of hours. Now its time for lunch. He finally gets back to the computer by 2:00 pm and works for about 45 minutes. Then he decides that it is just about time for school to let out and he goes on to other things. His mother gets home from work and asks how did the classes go? He responds that he did just fine. But the real fact is that he spent only about an hour and 45 minutes when he should have attended school for a minimum of 5 hours.

The problem with this for-profit model is that it considers profit as the top priority. So if it becomes apparent that a student is not completing his/her lessons, and is not devoting the necessary online time to school, the online company sees to it that the maximum profit is milked from the government before any actions are taken to correct the problem. Usually the student finally drops out and registers back into the real public schools while the online charter recruits a replacement. I believe such practices should be ruled as violations of Louisiana's mandatory attendance law and the school should not be allowed to operate if it cannot verify that students are in attendance. In this case, attendance would be solid participation for the same amount of time the student would be in a traditional school. We don't allow students in traditional school to skip classes. Why do we allow it for online schools? There should be a way of monitoring time on task and work produced each day. Otherwise no funding of such operations can be justified.

But the real issue is how do we stop the campaign contributions from online charter operators which are using some of our tax dollars to buy the support of our legislators and other elected officials? This is a major flaw in this system that I believe amounts to corruption. When public school advocates ask legislators why such schools continue to get funding, the most common answer is this: "Look it's the parents' tax dollars. Why can't the child take his MFP allocation with him to a "choice" school just like he takes his backpack to the school of his/her parents choice? I believe parents deserve a choice. Why not let the parent choose what is best for her/his child?"

Let me tell you what is wrong with the above example. First of all it is not the parent's tax dollars. On average, at least two thirds of school tax dollars for each MFP unit come from taxpayers who do not have a child in school. We pay these taxes for the public good, to make sure that we have an educated population capable of becoming productive citizens. Those MFP dollars do not belong to the parent. They belong to all of us. All of us as taxpayers have a right to demand accountability from the online charter operators. Better yet, we should have a right to insist that they stop receiving our taxes!

But that's not about to happen as long as regular taxpayers and professional educator voices are overpowered by the big business lobby with their huge campaign contributions. Right now the main opposition to school takeover by the privatizers are our professional teacher unions. Yet their political action arms can only afford to spend less than one-tenth what the big business pacs are spending to elect anti-pulic education candidates!

Regular voters are certainly not being heard by BESE.  This blog pointed out that 6 out of 8 BESE members had their positions bought recently with 3.5 million dollars from out-of-state contributors as directed by businessman Lane Grigsby and LABI. The big business lobby has no clue about how education should be run, but they are still determined to buy control of it. They certainly know how to convert those millions of out-of-state contributions into television ads and massive mailings and hit pieces against good people running for BESE. One particularly vicious ad created a fake TV news story slandering BESE member Carolyn Hill so badly that the stations pulled it off the air, but not until after the damage had been done.

Here is what is really ironic and insulting to teachers about the attack on our public schools by the big business community. The leaders of LABI have succeeded to some extent in demonizing the teacher unions by claiming that they only exist to defend incompetent teachers, and work for pay raises when the real truth is that the teaching profession probably contains much fewer slackers than any other profession. You just can't survive as a teacher in today's schools unless you put every bit of energy possible into your job. This big business propaganda is actually believed by some teachers at the very time that these super rich corporate leaders are privatizing our schools and attacking teacher job security, and retirement benefits as overly generous and changing laws so that teachers are denied step increases!

Much of the money for this purchase of the control of education comes from the likes of the Walton family heirs. They are the children of the Wal Mart genius Sam Walton. They are not entrepreneurs and never ran a business. They just inherited a huge fortune and now they fancy themselves as education reformers whose goal is to privatize as much of public education as they possibly can. You probably have heard their commercials about how the Walton foundation wants to insure that all families have access to quality school choices. All of this without a shred of evidence that it works. So the online charters managers are getting a assistance in buying BESE and legislative votes from the misguided philanthropists.

Readers, I feel I must ask you this question: When are we going to put a stop to this power grab of the super rich over our public schools? Most public educators I know have been silent and basically unwilling to confront this attack on our public schools. The majority don't join their teacher unions which often represent the only real challenge to this privatization of schools and destruction of the teaching profession. Some actually join the A+PEL  group (because it is cheap and markets itself as professional) while it is firmly allied with LABI and supports every attack on public schools and the teaching profession. As long as we insist on burying our heads in the sand, we are giving up our democratic rights as citizens. As things are headed now, the education profession will be dismantled so that anyone with a degree of any kind who is willing to teach test-prep will be hired at the lowest salary possible without benefits, and the privatizers will get rich. Our children will pay the price.

If you are an educator or a concerned parent, one small thing you can do to fight back is to join my Defenders of Public Education email group. Just send me an email to and say "sign me up". Include your zip code so that I can put you on the correct email list to receive information on key legislative and BESE actions. Then when I send you notices of upcoming votes, you can do your part in expressing your concerns to your elected officials. 

But the most effective thing you can do, if you consider yourself a professional educator, is to join and become active in your teacher union!