In Defense of Virtual Charter Schools, DeVos Cites Questionable Numbers
By Benjamin Herold. This story originally appeared on the Digital Education blog.
In her written response to questions from a key Democratic senator, Education Secretary-nominee Betsy DeVos defended full-time online charter schools using graduation rates significantly higher than those used for state and federal accountability purposes. The figures and language cited by DeVos directly mirror those used in a report from K12 Inc., the country's largest for-profit operator of cyber charter schools, in which DeVos is a former investor.
According to the Ohio education department, for example, the Ohio Virtual Academy has a four-year graduation rate of 53 percent, good for an "F" on the state's accountability system.
DeVos put the figure at 92 percent.
The billionaire school-choice advocate did not cite a source. But that figure, and others she used in her letter to Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash., are the same as those included in a report of academic progress issued by K12 Inc. in 2016 (See page 158). The K12 report makes clear that the figures listed are not calculated in accordance with federal and state regulations. K12's figures are instead calculated using only those students who remained enrolled in their schools continuously from 9th through 12th grade, thus excluding dropouts and transfers.
It's the latest questionable move for President Donald Trump's pick to head the U.S. Department of Education. A vote on DeVos by the full Senate is expected early next week. Democrats have so far lined up in unanimous opposition. Two key Republican senators announced Wednesday that they also would not support her nomination, leaving the Senate in a potential 50-50 deadlock that would presumably be broken in DeVos' favor by Vice President Mike Pence.
Ed Patru, a spokesman for DeVos, referred questions to the Trump administration, which did not immediately respond Wednesday evening to a request for comment.
Over the past 18 months, full-time online charters have come under withering scrutiny for sector-wide poor performance and mismanagement. A 2015 research study by the Center for Research on Educational Outcomes at Stanford University, for example, found that two-thirds of cybers perform worse than comparable brick-and-mortar schools. An Education Week investigation documented widespread reports of trouble at cyber charters in 22 states, covering 15 years. And a number of pro-school-choice groups have sought to distance themselves from cybers, issuing calls for tighter accountability and better oversight.
But DeVos defended the schools.
In written questions, Murray, who is the ranking member of the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions committee, asked whether it is appropriate to advocate for the schools, despite their poor results.
"High quality virtual charter schools provide valuable options to families, particularly those who live in rural areas where brick-and-mortar schools might not have the capacity to provide the range of courses or other educational experiences for students. Because of this, we must be careful not to brand an entire category of schools as failing students."
She then cited a number of schools and what she described as their graduation rates, which differ markedly from the figures used by each school's state for accountability purposes:
- The Idaho Virtual Academy has a 90 percent graduation rate, DeVos said. The school's most recent publicly reported figure for state accountability purposes is 33 percent.
- The Nevada Virtual Academy has a 100 percent graduation rate, DeVos said. The school's most recent publicly reported figure for state accountability purposes is 67 percent.
- The Ohio Virtual Academy has a 92 percent graduation rate, DeVos said. The school's most recent publicly reported figure for state accountability purposes is 53 percent.
- The Oklahoma Virtual Academy has a 91 percent graduation rate, DeVos said. The school's most recent publicly reported figure for state accountability purposes is 40 percent.
- The Utah Virtual Academy has a 96 percent graduation rate, DeVos said. The school's most recent publicly reported figure for state accountability purposes is 42 percent.
The schools listed in DeVos' written response, and the language she used to introduce them—"the following virtual academies have four-year cohort graduation rates at or above 90 percent"—is the same as the language used by K12 Inc. in its 2016 Academic Report.
In the case of Nevada Virtual Academy, however, the school's own board report from May 2016 shows that the school's official graduation rate, used for accountability purposes, was 63 percent in 2015.
In her written responses to questions from Sen. Murray, DeVos said she has not had a financial interest in K12 Inc. "in nearly a decade."
Operators of online schools frequently argue that four-year cohort graduation rates are not an effective metric for measuring the effectiveness of cyber charters, which tend to have high enrollment turnover and sometimes serve as a school of last resort for students who did not succeed in more traditional environments. Cyber-charter proponents also frequently question the way states calculate such metrics for online schools.
During her Jan. 17 hearing, DeVos faced sharp questions about whether she supports equal accountability for all schools. She also appeared not to understand the country's bedrock federal special-education law, and she faced ridicule for defending guns in schools to ward off potential attacks from grizzly bears.
A previous version of this story should have said that the May 2016 board report from Nevada Virtual Academy showed a 2015 graduation rate of 63 percent.
Research assistance provided by Librarian Holly Peele and Library Intern Briana Brockett-Richmond.
- How Much Does K12 Inc. Spend on Lobbying? Some Shareholders Are Asking
- Charter School Booster and Billionaire, Eli Broad, Urges Senators to Drop DeVos
- DeVos Floats Online Education as Means to Provide Rural Students School Choice
- Rewarding Failure: an Education Week Investigation of the Cyber Charter Industry
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Photo: Education Secretary-designate Betsy DeVos testifies before the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee at her confirmation hearing on Jan. 17.--Carolyn Kaster/AP