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Virtual Charter Schools Are Booming, Despite A Checkered Reputation


Millions of schoolchildren around the country are learning in front of a computer screen this year. Most are being taught by traditional public schools. But more and more, their parents have been turning to a very different model, a model with a checkered history - virtual for-profit charter schools. Well, we're going to dig in these next few minutes on the subject, and our guide is Anya Kamenetz of the NPR education team.

Hey, Anya.


KELLY: I am not sure that I know what a virtual charter school is. Explain.

KAMENETZ: OK, so the virtual part means it's all online. Many of them offer a combination of prerecorded video lessons and written assignments. The charter school part means that families are choosing to enroll in these schools. They are free to families but paid for by taxpayers, like any other charter school. And on the back end, many times, there's a for-profit company that's operating these virtual charter schools. So some big names are K12 Inc, which is changing its name to Stride very soon, and Connections Academy. Both of them are owned by publicly traded companies, and they've been around for about two decades. Other names include Epic in Oklahoma and Excel in Ohio.

KELLY: So these schools were already online, already doing virtual learning. How has the pandemic changed the picture for them?

KAMENETZ: So of course, we're seeing districts all over the country - they've been forced to pivot to online learning, and often, they weren't very prepared to do that. So as a result, families have been looking for schools that are more experienced, specialized in online education. And as a result, these virtual charter schools have seen skyrocketing enrollments - 41% up for Connections Academy, 57% percent up for K12 Inc just in this school year.

KELLY: So demand is clearly there. What about results? Are these schools a good option?

KAMENETZ: Well, I think historically, these for-profit schools - their student outcomes have just been terrible. And the whole industry has been repeatedly plagued with accusations of financial fraud, mismanagement. In state after state, they've been shut down by regulators, and there are just consistent reports of very high teacher-student ratios, which helps keep the cost down for these operators, of poor student retention, bad test performance, low graduation rates and on and on. In fact, a couple of years ago, I reported that groups representing the charter school industry have publicly questioned whether virtual schools should even be included in the charter school model, basically saying, they're making the rest of us look bad.

KELLY: Allegations of fraud, bad test performance, low graduation rates - this does not sound great. What does the virtual charter school industry have to say?

KAMENETZ: So I talked to Kevin Chavous. He's the president of academics, policy and schools at K12 Inc. And he was the first to admit...

KEVIN CHAVOUS: We have had our bumps in the road. We've made some mistakes.

KAMENETZ: But, he says, families should give them another chance right now because they're really made for this moment. They have the online optimized curriculum. They have teachers specially trained to use it. In other words, he says...

CHAVOUS: We know what we're doing.

KAMENETZ: I will point out that when Chavous said bumps in the road, that's as recent as this September. K12 Inc was awarded a no-bid, multi-million-dollar contract to administer Miami-Dade County Public Schools' remote learning before they reopened their school buildings. But there were so many technical glitches that the whole thing was shut down within just a couple of weeks. The district fired them, and records show that thousands of students left the district during this whole episode.

KELLY: OK, well, I am intrigued by this central question of why families are choosing these schools. And we have some specific reporting on this. Anya, stay with us. Listen to this. This is reporting from our member station colleague Robby Korth at StateImpact Oklahoma about one specific virtual charter school.


ROBBY KORTH, BYLINE: Here's how parent Mandii Brower describes her public school's transition to distance learning in the spring.

MANDII BROWER: It was just like - we never learned with our teachers again. They never checked on things again. It was just like, do this for 30 minutes on the computer. We're done with school. And I'm like, I can't see my kids' education going that way.

KORTH: Brower knew she had to make a change. So this fall, she took her kids out of Yukon, Okla., public school system and enrolled them in Epic Charter Schools. She says the difference has been night and day.

BROWER: Because Epic has had this virtual learning model, and they have it down pat. And they know how to help families.

KORTH: Epic allows students to take prerecorded or self-guided classes online at their own pace. Teachers are available for one-on-one help. Brower wasn't the only parent to give the Oklahoma-based virtual school a try. Thanks to a pandemic-driven enrollment surge, Epic is now double the size of the state's largest public school district. But it's also facing accusations that it misused millions of dollars in public funding.

JOY HOFMEISTER: Epic needs to be held accountable. All public schools need to be held accountable.

KORTH: Joy Hofmeister is Oklahoma's state superintendent of public instruction. She's leading an effort to review Epic's accreditation. At the same time, the school's contract to operate in Oklahoma is being reconsidered. That's after a recent state investigation accused Epic of funneling millions of public dollars into the pockets of its co-founders and misusing funds meant for student instruction, among other things. Epic has denied most of the allegations, but they've run out of goodwill with regulators like Hofmeister and the state department of education.

HOFMEISTER: We have a pattern of practice that is unacceptable and has to be changed.

KORTH: Now a special counsel is investigating possible criminal wrongdoing, and the state school board is trying to claw back more than $11 million in public funding. Charter schools don't always have to report how they spend public money. That's made investigating Epic a challenge. The state says Epic has withheld financial records from investigators, but Epic argues it's for-profit management company doesn't have to share that information. It says it never has in the past.

BILL HICKMAN: And nobody told us that that was wrong. Nobody told us we couldn't do that.

KORTH: That's Epic's attorney Bill Hickman at a recent school board meeting. Because of a long appeals process and the chance for a settlement, Epic will stay in session for the rest of the year at least and probably beyond if it agrees to make some changes. In the meantime, state leaders like Hofmeister have this message for kids and families.

HOFMEISTER: Instruction is going to continue. We want to see students successful. We understand the incredible need during a pandemic especially.

KORTH: Parent Mandii Brower is relieved to hear that. She thinks Epic's learning model is worth it, and families should ignore the controversy.

BROWER: You know, it's just stay the course. We can do this. Just keep going like nothing is happening.

KORTH: That's exactly what Brower and her two daughters plan to do.

For NPR News, I'm Robby Korth in Oklahoma City.

KELLY: Well, as we listened along to that story, our colleague Anya Kamenetz from our education team was listening along still with us too. And, Anya, I will tell you one thing that struck me was the mom who sounds really, really happy that her kids have these schools as an option.

KAMENETZ: That's right. You know, and in some ways, it's a testament to just how our public schools have struggled to pivot and offer online and hybrid learning. But I think even after the pandemic, once these families have tried online learning, there might be a growing number of them who want to stick with it. For example, I hear about kids with school anxiety or ADHD, who have experienced bullying or harassment and are happier learning at home.

KELLY: Well, if they're here to stay, is there anything systemic that should be done, could be done to hold these virtual charter schools more accountable?

KAMENETZ: So we're talking about two decades of chronic issues and problems, just like the ones described at Epic right now. What the watchdogs and experts in the field told me is that you're going to have to really overhaul the incentive structure, maybe even the whole business model of virtual schools in order for them to operate in a better way. It might make more sense to fund these schools, for example, based on student performance versus simply headcount. Or you could look at virtual schools like Florida Virtual School. It's a public school operated by the state. There's no for-profit company involved. And those students actually do better than the state average on end-of-course exams and AP exams, for example, so, you know, there are ways to do this better. But whether companies like Epic or K12 Inc change their stripes is a whole other question.

KELLY: Anya Kamenetz of the NPR education team, thank you.

KAMENETZ: Thanks, Mary Louise. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Anya Kamenetz is an education correspondent at NPR. She joined NPR in 2014, working as part of a new initiative to coordinate on-air and online coverage of learning. Since then the NPR Ed team has won a 2017 Edward R. Murrow Award for Innovation, and a 2015 National Award for Education Reporting for the multimedia national collaboration, the Grad Rates project.
Robby Korth joined StateImpact Oklahoma in October 2019, focusing on education reporting.