Parent Mandii Brower vividly remembers what it was like when her kids' school in Yukon, Okla., switched to distance learning in the spring: "It was just like, we never learned with our teachers again. They never checked on things again." She says "school" consisted of just a few short daily assignments.
"I [couldn't] see my kids' education going that way."
So this fall, Brower enrolled her two daughters in Epic Charter Schools, a virtual program that allows students to study online, at their own pace, with prerecorded lessons and one-on-one teacher support. For Brower, the difference has been night and day. She says Epic "[has] it down pat, and they know how to help families."
Brower wasn't the only parent to give the Oklahoma-based virtual school a try this year. Since last spring, Epic enrollment has grown to be double the size of the state's largest public school district.
In fact, across the country, fully virtual K-12 charter schools have experienced a pandemic-induced "surge," as one sector observer put it. K12 Inc., one of the biggest in the business, has reported a 57% enrollment increase, taking it up to 195,000 students; Connections Academy, another heavy hitter, has reported a 41% jump, and the list goes on.
Virtual charter schools have been around for a couple of decades. In that time, they've been both relatively niche and highly controversial. Free to families but paid for by taxpayers, they enrolled about 300,000 full-time students in the 2017-18 school year, according to the National Education Policy Center. The market has been dominated by publicly traded corporations, including K12 Inc. and Pearson, which runs Connections Academy. Together those two entities enroll about half of the nation's virtual charter school students.
Gary Miron, at Western Michigan University, has been doing annual watchdog reports on the virtual charter sector since 2012. He says, "Nothing changes — except that they continue to grow in the face of all the negative news, in the face of all the reports that demonstrate that they have terrible outcomes, and in the face of all the scandalous reports that investigative journalists continue to dig up."
As Miron explains, corporate-run virtual schools have consistently been dogged by complaints about high student turnover, low student performance, fraud and waste. Low test scores, abysmal graduation rates and disputes about headcount have led these schools to be either shut down or placed at risk of closure in several states. Groups representing charter schools, like the National Association of Charter School Authorizers, have publicly questioned "whether virtual schools should be included in the charter school model at all," and called for stepped-up oversight and funding rules.
Oklahoma's Epic scandal
Epic Charter Schools in Oklahoma is what Miron calls "a wannabe big guy," and "one of the most scandal-ridden." Case in point: A recent investigation by Oklahoma's state auditor accused Epic of, among other things, funneling millions of public dollars into the pockets of its co-founders and misusing funds meant for student instruction.
Epic has denied most of the allegations. But it has run out of goodwill with regulators like Joy Hofmeister, Oklahoma's state superintendent of public instruction. "We have a pattern of practice that is unacceptable and has to be changed," Hofmeister says.
"Epic needs to be held accountable. All public schools need to be held accountable."
But because of its business structure, investigating Epic has been a challenge. The state says Epic has withheld financial records from investigators, while the school argues its for-profit management company doesn't have to share that information — Epic attorney Bill Hickman says it never has in the past.
"And nobody told us that was wrong. Nobody told us we couldn't do that," he said at a recent school board meeting.
Bumps in the road
Epic isn't the only virtual charter company to stumble publicly this school year. Miami-Dade County Public Schools, the nation's fourth largest district, awarded K12 Inc. a $15.3 million no-bid contract to power its virtual learning platform this fall, before school buildings reopened there. But there were so many technical glitches that the district fired K12 Inc. after only a couple of weeks. School records provided to WLRN in Miami show thousands of students left the district during that period.
"We have had our bumps in the road. We've made some mistakes," says Kevin Chavous, K12 Inc.'s president of academics, policy and schools.
The persistent problems with the "corporate-model" virtual charters, as critics like Gary Miron see it, come down to their business model and incentives. He says they spend their money on marketing to parents and lobbying lawmakers, not on education.
For example, Miron has documented ratios of as many as 100 students per teacher. He says a special education teacher at one school "showed me a screenshot from her computer to show how many kids that she has. And I just said, 'Hey, that's impossible. That's illegal. You can't have that many — states regulate it.' And she said, 'Yep, and I'm quitting.' "
When asked about their average teacher-student ratio, K12 Inc. provided NPR not with a number, but with a statement that read in part: "Ratios are determined based on content area, grade levels, and specific student needs, and the educator-to-student ratios in K12-powered schools is similar to levels at traditional brick and mortar schools." Connections Academy told NPR, "On average, 'class size' is typically between 30-50."
Virtual charter schools have countered the critics by saying that they meet families' desire for choice, and that's been even more true during the pandemic. Epic Charter Schools co-founder Ben Harris told NPR, "I'm glad we are here to make sure they don't have to choose between a school they don't think is safe for their child and their child having a quality education. No parent should have to make that choice."
Chavous says families are choosing virtual charters because in the "areas that are most important in terms of administering a robust, meaningful, quality based online learning experience for families, we know what we're doing." He says parents prefer them for their customized online curriculum and teachers who are specifically trained to use it — many public school districts pivoting to remote learning can't say the same.
He also says that virtual charter students have tended to underperform because they are lower-performing to begin with. "Only 12% of our first-time-enrolled K-12 students are at grade level," Chavous explains. "That's been our historical track."
However, research has shown that virtual charter school students, including at K12 Inc., underperform even when their previous learning level is taken into account.
The future of virtual learning
Unprecedented numbers of students have experienced virtual learning last spring and this fall, and some proportion of them will doubtless stick with it going forward. This may include students with ADHD, social anxiety or students who are victims of bullying and discrimination and prefer learning from home.
Chavous says that the parents signing up for K12 Inc. right now are highly educated and more engaged compared to their previous population of families. "Let me be frank: To keep them, we'd better be on our game." He says they've stepped up efforts with things like virtual extracurricular activities and community building among parents.
Meanwhile, Miron is clear that he does believe in virtual learning as a model. In fact, he says, there's a better alternative to for-profit charters out there — and it's also growing. He points to state-run "virtual academies" that exist in about half of states. They offer millions of public school students, especially high schoolers, the chance to take individual courses online. These academies help students who need to retake a course to graduate, or allow a rural high school to offer a foreign language or an AP course that they otherwise would not be able to offer. Many have full-time online programs as well, and even hybrid models with both in-person and online learning days.
For example, Florida Virtual School, which is state run and has been around since 1997, has both full-time and class-by-class offerings. The school says its students actually do better than the state average on end-of-course exams and Advanced Placement exams. And during the pandemic, its in-state, full-time enrollment has nearly doubled, to 11,000 students.
"I think [families are] choosing us because we've done this for a long time," says Courtney Calfee of Florida Virtual School.
Given the increased parent experience with online learning, it's possible that public school districts will be moved to offer more quality full-time and hybrid options, even beyond the pandemic. But without big changes in state regulations and oversight, whether companies like Epic or K12 Inc. are moved to change their stripes is a whole other question.
MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:
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.
ANYA KAMENETZ, BYLINE: Hi, Mary Louise.
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.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NPR BROADCAST)
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.