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What's Happening With Virtual Charter Schools This Year?

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Only a handful of bills have been introduced in statehouses so far this year dealing with a small but controversial segment of the charter school sector: full-time online charter schools.

With legislative sessions now underway in many states, there doesn't seem to be a whole lot of action so far around virtual charter schools—either in pushes to expand them or efforts to regulate them more.

That's interesting because the schools have had a higher profile lately due to the confirmation of U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos—whose longtime support for virtual schools was aggressively questioned during a contentious confirmation process—and several recent reports on the sector, including an investigation by Education Week.

Last June, three national charter advocacy groups released a report calling for much stiffer regulation of virtual charter schools, most of which are run by for-profit management companies. That followed a major study released from Stanford University which found that attending an online charter school had an "overwhelmingly negative" impact on a student's academic growth. 

In reporting on this niche segment of the charter sector, here are four states where I found some concrete policy proposals aimed at cyber charters this year.

Michigan's Governor Proposes Cuts to Cyber Charter School Funding

Michigan Gov. Rick Snyder's proposed budget calls for scaling back cyber charter funding to 80 percent of what they are currently receiving from the state.

The governor explained that the proposed reduction is because online schools don't have to spend money to maintain buildings like brick-and-mortar schools do. It's a move the governor's office expects will save the state $22 million.

Enrollment in the state's online charter schools has ballooned since lawmakers lifted a strict cap in 2012 on the number of schools allowed to open and students allowed to enroll.

Whether online schools should be funded at the same level as their brick-and-mortar counterparts is an ongoing debate over cyber charters. While virtual schools—which don't have to be charters, but most often are—may not have to maintain a building or a fleet of school buses, proponents of the schools argue that the additional technology costs they incur aren't being fairly considered.

Ohio Bill Tackles Attendance Questions for Virtual Schools

Another issue that figures prominently in the debate over cyber charters is how they track student attendance and engagement. That question has been at the root of a legal battle in Ohio and is now the source of new legislation.

Ohio Senate Minority Leader Joe Schiavoni, a Democrat, is reviving a bill he proposed last year that would require online schools to track and report the amount of time students participate in online coursework.

The Cleveland Plain Dealer reports that Republican lawmakers plan to propose legislation that would address how e-schools are paid, among other things.

This comes after state audits found that several of Ohio's online charter schools, called e-schools there, overbilled the state for thousands of students who weren't completing enough coursework to be counted as full-time students.

The schools have argued that the law only requires them to offer classes to students to receive state funding, and that tracking the time students are logged in—which the state is now demanding—isn't necessarily a fair measure of engagement.

The state disagrees and there's about $80 million of public dollars on the line.

Indiana's Virtual Charter Schools Included in Broader Charters Bill

Student engagement is also part of a larger charter school bill proposed in Indiana. The bill would require virtual charter schools to adopt "a student engagement policy." It would also give virtual schools the authority to remove students who are not meeting a virtual school's engagement policies.

Kentucky Charter Bill Includes Restrictions on Virtual Charter Schools

A bill that would allow charter schools to open up for the first time in Kentucky also lays out some detailed plans specific to virtual charters and how they should be regulated beyond brick-and-mortar charters.

For example, only the state board of education would have the authority to approve virtual schools, and cyber charter enrollment growth would hinge on how well their current students perform academically.

Many of the proposed parameters for virtual charter schools in the Kentucky bill come from a report released last year by three national charter school organizations: the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools, the National Association of Charter School Authorizers, and the 50-state Campaign for Achievement Now.

The report concluded that virtual charter school students perform significantly worse academically than their peers in brick-and-mortar public schools and should be regulated differently.

Virtual Charter School Companies' Influence in Statehouses 

The nation's two largest online charter school companies, K12 Inc. and Connections Education, have played significant roles in shaping policy toward online charter schools, according to a recent Education Week investigation into the lobbying efforts of for-profit virtual charter school operators.

Their lobbying and advocacy activities—as well as the overall academic performance of full-time online charter schools—have begun drawing sharp criticism even from inside the charter school community. K12 Inc. and Connections Education say lobbying is necessary to have a seat at the table with other key players in education such as teachers' unions.

You can see how much each company spent by state in the graph below. The numbers are current through November 2016.

K12 Inc. has spent at least $10.5 million to hire lobbyists in 21 states, according to over a decade's worth of state lobbying disclosure forms examined by Education Week. Connections Education spent over $3.7 million in that same time period.

That dollar amount is likely an underestimate. In several states, lobbying expenditures don't have to be reported, or, if they do, the dollar amounts are reported in broad ranges. For a comparison point, Connections Education, which runs fewer schools than K12 Inc., told Education Week it spent $1.3 million on lobbying in 2016 alone.

Read the full Education Week Investigation on Virtual Charter Schools:


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