Lawmakers urged to address the flunking elephant in the room: online schools

By: - February 5, 2019 6:07 am
Nevada Connections Academy

A file photo from Nevada Connections Academy.

The State Public Charter School Authority has an online school problem, and charter advocates will be pushing to address it during this legislative session.

A presentation at last month’s charter school board meeting illustrates the problem. The SPCSA’s overall graduation rate for the 2017-2018 academic year was 70 percent — far below the statewide graduation rate of 83 percent. However, the average graduation rate among the authority’s schools changes significantly if you control for one factor: whether the school is an online charter school.

The charter school authority’s overall graduation rate is severely impacted by low and average performance at its online charter schools. Argent Preparatory Academy, an online charter school the authority closed after the last academic year, ended its existence with an abysmal 36 percent graduation rate. Nevada Connections Academy, an online charter school that has been in constant battle with the authority over the past few years, has a graduation rate of 64 percent.

Nevada Virtual Academy, a third online charter school under the authority’s umbrella, has a graduation rate of 83.7 percent — slightly above the statewide graduation rate of 83.2 percent. However, its elementary school program has been ordered by the authority to shut down at the close of the current school year after failing to meet academic performance standards.

About 15 percent of the roughly 40,000 Nevada students in charter schools are enrolled in online charters.

The consistently low academic performance of online charter schools has given ample fodder to skeptics of charter schools. It has also divided charter school advocates themselves, with some calling for greater accountability of online charter schools and others criticizing authorizing bodies as being unfair toward online charter schools.

Here in Nevada, a legislative debate on online charter schools appears to be forthcoming. The Charter School Association of Nevada is working with state Sen. Mo Dennis and state Assemblyman Tyrone Thompson to bring forth legislation that would change the way online charter schools are authorized and overseen.

“When charter school law was passed (in Nevada) some 22 years ago no one imagined there would one day be online schools, much less online charter schools,” says Pat Hickey, executive director of the charter school association.

No bill has been filed yet, but some of the issues expected to be considered include enrollment criteria, enrollment levels, minimum teacher-to-student ratios and a different process for authorizing online charter schools. Charter schools are by definition open enrollment, meaning they are supposed to accept every student. Creating enrollment criteria for online charter schools would make them more akin to district magnet schools which are allowed to have selective criteria.

All of these measures could also be tied to performance-based funding.

“Measures should be based on what virtual charter schools are,” says Hickey. “They are a different creature than a brick-and-mortar school, whether charter or district.”

One virtual-specific issue that has arisen: attendance. How do you measure truancy when students don’t physically go to school? Hickey says Nevada law is “very vague.” Signing into the school curriculum once per week keeps a student in good standing, but may not be conducive to good academic outcomes.

More robust measures might look at the length of time a student is logged in or actual completion of units or courses.

“We are trying to be proactive as a community,” says Hickey. “Online education really is a necessary alternative for certain students, but it does not appear to work for all students.”

Another issue: per-pupil funding. Currently, virtual charter schools receive the same amount brick-and-mortar charters and district schools receive despite often having lower overhead and fewer staff to pay. National critics of online charter schools argue this only leads to the national for-profit companies behind the scenes getting bigger paydays at the expense of students.

K12 Inc. is the largest operator of online charter schools in the country. It has been scrutinized for shady financial practices. In 2016, the for-profit company reached an $8.5-million court settlement in California regarding allegations by then-Attorney General Kamala Harris of inflated attendance figures, aggressive marketing campaigns and inadequate instructional supports.

Later analysis released last year by the Center for American Progress found such practices have not been limited to California and concluded that “more stringent accountability provisions are needed to ensure that innovative instruction models improve student outcomes.” Their report calls for an outright prohibition on for-profit companies opening and managing virtual charter schools.

The Center looked at five states where online charter schools have thrived, including Nevada.

K12 is the parent company of Nevada Virtual Academy. K12 is also affiliated with three smaller charter schools that are sponsored by rural school districts in Nevada.

Nevada Connections Academy is affiliated with the for-profit company Connections Education, which in turn is owned by the textbook and testing giant Pearson Education.

Hickey says the charter school association has been working with the virtual charter schools to create guiding principles that will inform legislative efforts related to online charter schools. He says the process has been productive.

But opposition is expected.

The National Coalition for Public School Options, which has a local presence called Nevada for Online Education, has opposed legislation in other states that would treat online charters differently than brick-and-mortar ones. The group says it’s devoted to advocating for “all school choice options,” but the majority of its lobbying focuses on online schools.

“From a national perspective, we believe all schools should be treated equally,” said Susan Hepworth, communications director of the Coalition. “We do not feel this is happening, and we don’t believe in policies that eliminate choice and punish virtual schools.”

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April Corbin Girnus
April Corbin Girnus

April Corbin Girnus is an award-winning journalist with a decade of media experience. A stickler about municipal boundary lines, April enjoys teaching people about unincorporated Clark County. She grew up in Sunrise Manor and currently resides in Paradise with her husband, three children and one mutt.