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Virtual charter schools ‘should be banned eveywhere’

June 7, 2013

From Whitney Tilson, 6/5/2013

It’s a healthy thing that there’s spirited debate within the school reform movement – a good example is the polar opposite views my friend Jeanne Allen of the Center for Education Reform and I had about NJ Commissioner Cerf’s decision to deny the applications of two virtual charter schools in NJ. Jeanne lamented that Cerf was “pull[ing] the plug on two previously approved schools whose online learning delivery modality has been celebrated by thought leaders the nation over” (see full article, below), while I celebrated Cerf’s decision (it’s so rare that I side with the unions on anything!).

This is one of the few times in which my day job (as a hedge fund manager) overlaps with my passion for ed reform, as the largest operator of virtual charter schools is a for-profit, public company called K-12, which was one of the applicants in NJ (full disclosure: I’ve put my money where my mouth is and am short K-12’s stock). I’ve done extensive research on K-12 and the virtual (online) charter schools that they operate in many states and have come to the firm conclusion that they should be banned everywhere – not because they’re for-profit (I have no problem with that), but because I think their schools are delivering a HORRIBLE education to most of their students. Whether this is because they’re cutting corners to maximize profits, or just don’t have the right model, or whether the entire concept of virtual schools for K-12 students is inherently flawed (especially for the most troubled students who tend to end up at virtual schools – they’re the ones who MOST need lots of direct contact with high-quality teachers!) I don’t know, though I tend to suspect the latter is the bulk of the problem. This is NOT to knock ed tech/blended learning overall – I think there’s a bright future overall in this area, but am skeptical that 100% online schools can work for K-12 students. I am much more open to the idea that virtual/online learning might work well for college students and adults (for example, my dad got his MBA entirely online from Colorado State while living in Ethiopia).

For more on K-12, see:

· Virtual schools are multiplying, but some question their educational value (Washington Post): http://www.washingtonpost.com/local/education/virtual-schools-are-multiplying-but-some-question-their-educational-value/2011/11/22/gIQANUzkzN_story.html
· Profits and Questions at Online Charter Schools (NY Times): http://www.nytimes.com/2011/12/13/education/online-schools-score-better-on-wall-street-than-in-classrooms.html
· Report Shows Students Attending K12 Inc. Cyber Schools Fall Behind (National Education Policy Center): http://nepc.colorado.edu/newsletter/2012/07/understanding-improving-virtual
· K12, Inc. online schools: a view from the inside (The Examiner, Denver): http://www.examiner.com/article/k12-inc-online-schools-a-view-from-the-inside
· LRN: The Skirmish in Seminole County and The Desperate Race (The Financial Investigator): http://www.thefinancialinvestigator.com/?p=816
· Online Educator K12 Being Investigated By Florida Department of Education (The Ledger, FL): http://www.theledger.com/article/20120911/NEWS/120919904?p=all&tc=pgall&tc=ar
· In K12 Courses, 275 Students to a Single Teacher (Florida Center for Investigative Reporting): http://fcir.org/2012/09/16/in-k12-courses-275-students-to-a-single-teacher/ and http://fcir.org/2012/09/16/read-k12s-confidential-student-teacher-ratio-document/
· Chattanooga senator slaps virtual school company for “results at bottom of the bottom” (PolitiFact): http://www.politifact.com/tennessee/statements/2012/oct/07/andy-berke/chattanooga-senator-slaps-virtual-school-company-r
· Online students lag state averages (Ed News Colorado): http://www.ednewscolorado.org/2012/11/13/52310-online-students-lag-state-averages
· Increased IRS Scrutiny of Charter Schools Operated by For-Profit Management Companies: http://www.rothgerber.com/showarticle.aspx?Show=1627
· Colorado Virtual Academy Answers Tough Questions on Operations, Academic Performance (KUNC): http://kunc.org/post/colorado-virtual-academy-answers-tough-questions-operations-academic-performance

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