The big scam: Why North Carolina should dump virtual charter schools

By: - July 18, 2019 5:30 am
Image: Adobe Stock

Linger long enough in Raleigh’s legislative lagoon and you’ll find there are three kinds of lawmakers:

The pragmatists: Take a photo if you spy one of these. Theirs is an isolated, lonely caucus, and their agenda is a more nebulous sort. Find the logic, find the rationale for a proposal and you may have an ally here.

The opportunists: If such lawmakers have an ideological reference point, it’s somewhere in the wild blue ether. It is a shifting amorphous thing that they may, if the timing’s right, burn in effigy if it lands a higher office or appointment.

And, of course, the crusaders, the sort who ran for office on an issue or a mission, whether it’s indebted to the right or the left, the sort who you’ll have to keep an eye on because, God help us all, they’d never let a bit of research spoil their fun.

“Facts don’t do what I want them to,” David Byrne observed, caustically, in 1980, never knowing how far we’d ride this bleak wave.

Talk to North Carolina lawmakers and you will be told that nearly all fall into the first camp. Observe North Carolina lawmakers and you will learn that almost none of them – aside from a precious few – actually do.

Perhaps that’s why I struggle with well-meaning legislators – those who often play the part of pragmatist – who are catastrophically wrong when it concerns virtual charters. I’m talking about those legislators who, in this case, would embrace a painfully obvious cognitive dissonance that allows them to suspend the laws of gravity, space, time, and reason if – in the twinkle of a lobbyist’s eye – they are asked to make exception for private companies.

Just as legislators did Tuesday when the state Senate approved a package of school choice reforms in one bill, including, against all logic, another raft of concessions for two, for-profit virtual charters in North Carolina.

Under the Senate bill, which is now on Gov. Roy Cooper’s desk, N.C. Virtual Academy and N.C. Cyber Academy (formerly called Connections Academy) may be able to expand their enrollment by a generous 20 percent.

A reminder to our legislators: The growth of the virtual charter’s business model is not your, or our, concern. It should ever be the growth of the North Carolina students housed within.

The charter school bill now sits on the desk of Gov. Roy Cooper.

Since their launch in 2015, these two schools have never risen above a “D” school performance grade. They have never met pre-set student growth goals. And not a single shred of that is surprising.

In April, Education Week reported that nearly three-quarters of students enrolled in virtual charters nationwide attended a high school where less than half graduated in four years. Their graduation woes are anything but atypical. In state after state, virtual charters have struggled mightily, lagging on test scores, academic growth and attendance, Education Week found.

In 2015, a much-publicized report by Stanford researchers went spelunking in virtual charters’ deepest recesses, finding that math students were so delayed, it was as if they did not attend school – at all – for an entire year.

Virtual charter experiments in other states ended in bitter, expensive lawsuits. In 2016, K12 Inc., which runs N.C. Virtual Academy, settled a lawsuit with then-California Attorney General Kamala Harris, agreeing to dispense millions in payments and debt relief over claims that they’d inflated test scores and attendance to bilk public money from the state, something they’d wholly denied.

“All children deserve, and are entitled under the law, to an equal education,” Harris said at the time. “K12 and its schools misled parents and the state of California by claiming taxpayer dollars for questionable student attendance, misstating student success and parent satisfaction, and loading nonprofit charities with debt.”

Meanwhile, a 2018 report – entitled “Profit Before Kids” – from the Center for American Progress elucidated the academic breakdowns and financial imbroglios of large virtual charters in several states, many of them run by – here comes my lunch! – K12 Inc.

That report found, in addition to K12’s lucrative, executive pay – “comparable to the national average cost of educating almost 1,300 public school students” – that the company’s blossoming portfolio was not evidence of any academic plaudits.

“Despite concerning outcomes across many of K12 Inc.’s virtual charter schools,” CAP wrote, “the company’s 2018 annual report demonstrates that it continues to divert resources to grow enrollment, thereby limiting funds to improve academic programs.”

Because the complaints are not merely political hyperbole, let us go on.

In January 2018, one massive virtual charter in Ohio shuttered its doors following similar claims that they’d inflated attendance, marooning 12,000 students while the state’s education leaders labored to win back $80 million in allegedly unwarranted payments to the rapacious for-profit.

“How bad do for-profit, virtual charter schools have to get?” the nonpartisan National Education Association pondered in an October 2018 report.

“Not only are the students being badly served, but the taxpayers are being fleeced,” Becky Higgins, president of the Ohio Education Association, told NEA.

More recently, members of the Indiana State Board of Education voted last week to demand that a virtual charter and the local school district it worked with repay $40 million when an audit found the online school reported bogus attendance numbers to guzzle more public cash.

There’s no evidence of any fraud in North Carolina today, but the virtual charter pattern should – at the least – discomfit parents and the legislators they elected to make decent choices for their children. To imagine such obeisance, such benevolent restraint, from legislative leaders for any similarly capsizing traditional public school is madness.

It is not a matter of political doctrine, something we may ascribe to the ideological differences between progressives and conservatives.

If you were to try to sell me a vehicle that is, currently, engulfed in flames, I would argue our differences are not purely philosophical in nature.

Why is it that, to these legislators, only private and for-profit school operators deserve the benefit of the doubt?

If, indeed, the school choice movement is founded and fostered upon the notion that struggling public schools have not been held to account – that innovation can make for renovation in the classroom – we should expect that school choice leaders would be the first to express their mounting skepticism. We would hope that they would not be, as they are, readily willing to overlook this project’s failings. Otherwise, the word “hypocrisy” does not seem to do it justice.

“It’s an outright scam,” Western Michigan University researcher Gary Miron told me in 2016 as he explored virtual charters’ befuddling boom time in his own state.

It is as if the virtual charters’ mass-exported Greek tragedy, dispatched to pitiful ends in other states, occurred in a soundproof black hole; as if, no matter what they’re told to the contrary, North Carolina’s leaders have determined that the best course is to throw bad money after bad money.

“To remove this option for students by capping the growth I think does a disservice to those challenging students and those families with challenging students,” Rep. Craig Horn, a Union County Republican, beseeched in The News & Observer Tuesday, repeating the oft-cited claim that virtual charters make for some kind of shelter to bullied and troubled students who foundered in traditional school settings.

Rep. Jeffrey Elmore, a Wilkes County Republican who chairs the House Education Committee with Horn and Rep. Linda Johnson, brushed off one Democrat’s extraordinarily modest proposal to postpone virtual charters’ enrollment growth until either school had at least obtained a “C” grade. Elmore called the idea “premature,” The News & Observer reported.

“We can continue to evaluate this until the end of the pilot,” Elmore said. “And if we see that this is a continuous problem we can eliminate the pilot.”

Conceivably, however, the pilot could extend into perpetuity and our woebegone criticisms inevitably derided as premature. The 2015 pilot project was set to end this year, until overzealous privateers in the GOP caucus extended the project until 2023.

Still, given the volumes of information that suggest – Nay, they shout from the rooftops! – the failure of American virtual charters, one imagines our legislators were the last moviegoers gripped with white-knuckled suspense in James Cameron’s film adaption of the doomed Titanic.

And while, in some respects, Horn’s concern for “challenging” students may be laudable, we lack a single reason to believe for-profit, virtual charters are the answer.

This has not been about sorting out the needs of “challenging” students. It has been about making money off the needs of “challenging” students.

There may be do-gooders who work in a for-profit company, but to expect that the company itself – which has stated its most rudimentary monetary goals from the very beginning – will fill the role of a do-gooder is dangerously naïve.

Please, virtual charters, you are not fit to wear Mother Teresa’s robes.

It is not the students in these online schools who are failing. It is the online school that is failing, and it is the blindfolded, hogtied system – the same one that allows these online, for-profit schools to tarry – that is failing.

We know how this ends for North Carolina. The only thing we don’t know is how many North Carolina students our legislators allow to be commoditized, like some obscene Happy Meal, by the virtual charters.

Indeed, endure this farce long enough and we may have to create two new categories for North Carolina lawmakers: those who give a damn about the education of our children and those who do not.

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Billy Ball

Billy Ball, worked at NC Policy Watch from 2016 to 2020 — first as an education reporter and later as managing editor.