Walton’s Acknowledge Failure of On-Line For-Profit Charters… But STILL Believe in the Business Model
The Walton Foundation, major investors in for-profit charter schools, recently commissioned three reports on cyber-charters each of which concluded that on-line learning was a failure. As reported by Alternate blogger Steve Rosenfield and cross-posted on Naked Capitalism the findings were summarized in a recent op-ed article in Education Week:
“If virtual charters were grouped together and ranked as a single school district, it would be the ninth largest in the country and among the worst performing,” co-wrote Walton’s Marc Sternberg and Marc Holley, respectively the foundation’s director of educational giving and its evaluation unit director, in a recent Education Weekcommentary. “Online education must be reimagined. Ignoring the problem—or worse, replicating failures—serves nobody.”
As Rosenfield notes, “re-imagining” is not the same as “eliminating” and Walton the Walton Foundation operatives call for regulation of on-line charters falls short of calling for regulating for-profit charters, a distinction that is not accidental.
One could spend hours speculating why this might be, but the most clear-cut answers relate to money: as in, too many important people are making money from what can only be described as one of the biggest education scams pushed upon taxpayers in recent years by Wall Street and Silicon Valley.
I see a place for technology in schools. As one who sat through hours of movies in high school history and science classes in the 1960s an one who sat in huge lecture halls in college and graduate school I can see the promise of flipped instruction once all homes and dormitories have broadband. As one who taught middle school mathematics to urban students in the early 1970s I can see the potential for having on-line supplementary learning in class rooms in order to match the curriculum to the wildly diverse skill levels of students and to differentiate the lessons to match students learning styles. I can even see a place for asynchronous on-line instruction for students who have the capability to work independently… just as many people in the private sector participate in webinars when the time is right for them. But I am not at all surprised the wholesale use of on-line instruction is a dismal failure for, as Rosenfield notes, most teenagers are incapable of applying themselves and many have parents who will not oversee the learning at home:
Go back to the teenagers you know. If you put them in front of computers, told them to read a bunch of stuff and absorb it, gave them assignments with future deadlines, and mostly left them alone to do all of this, how soon do you think it would be before they were texting friends, watching videos and doing everything teens do instead of doing their homework?
…(these) findings are saying cyber charter schools mostly abandon kids, have far-off teachers, have trouble keeping students focused, and end up relying on parents—all of which it suggests might be “reason for concern.”
Despite these obvious drawbacks, on-line learning is especially appealing to those who seek profits because the overhead is incredibly low and the profit margins incredibly high… and some of those profits can be channelled into campaign contributions that help State legislators make up their minds. Moreover, since the costs to operate charters ARE low, they can operate at discounted rates which means that legislators can limit spending on schools and point to the efficient charters as examples of public education’s profligacy. It’s a vicious circle that feeds the shareholders and “starves the east” of public funding.
So don’t be surprised if ALEC starts introducing legislation to lightly regulate on-line charters and for-profit charters start taking steps to limiting enrollees so that they can boost their pass rates… and the vicious circle will continue rolling…
The Network for Public Education (NPE), a non-profit organization that promotes progressive education, recently issued its first report card of State education policies, a report card that counters those devised by conservative organizations funded by pro-privatization billionaires. Mother Jones writer Kristina Riga interviewed Diane Ravitch, the founder of NPE, on why a new report crd was needed… and as expected Ms. Ravitch made a compelling case.
There were all of these state reports coming out from right-wing groups like Students First and the American Legislative Exchange Council arguing that the definition of success is getting rid of public education and taking away any right that teachers might have. These create a climate when there is report card after report card agreeing that the future should be privately managed [charter] schools. There is nobody on the other side other than the unions, which are immediately discredited. There need to be two sides to the debate. Right now [the education conversation] is presented as what Students First is promoting is all that works.
We felt it was important to set up this other criteria and show how effective school systems operate: They are adequately funded, have preschools; they make sure that their teachers are professionals, and they don’t give away their authority. This is how the best nations in the world operate. They don’t operate through vouchers and charters.
One of the factors Rizga flagged was the NPE data point that indicated the gap in spending per student in poor schools compared to rich schools had grown 44 percent in the last decade. Ms. Ravitch’s explanation for this widening gap?
One important reason is that the federal policy has tilted completely toward testing and accountability and away from equity. The Elementary and Secondary Education Act of 1965 was all about equity and equitable resources for low-income students, and then in the 1990s that began to change. In DC, policymakers think that if we can only have high enough standards, tough enough tests, and hold people accountable, we can close the achievement gap. And it hasn’t happened. Yet the new law, the Every Student Succeeds Act, is based on the same test-based and market-driven framework and ideology, except it lets the states do it.
Ms. Ravitch could have also noted that when states cut back on their funding it has an especially devastating effect on those communities that do not have the local property tax base to offset the cuts and this exacerbates the difference between per pupil spending in rich districts and poor ones. Underfunded equalization formulas lose their impact, and almost every state has diminished their funding since the 2008 market collapse and few have restored their funding since the economy “recovered”.
In the coming months it would be heartening to see the NPE report card referenced in the mainstream media the way Michelle Rhee’s StudentsFirst Report Cards were promoted… but based on my Google feed it does not appear that local small town newspapers are reporting on NPE’s findings… but then more and more of those “small town” papers are owned by the people who are drawn to “reform” and want to believe that schools can be fixed by “getting rid of bad teachers” the same way that the deficit can be closed by “eliminating waste fraud and abuse”. Wishful thinking is always preferable to hard work.
A couple of weeks ago Alternate blogger Dustin Beilke wrote up his findings on the USDOE’s spending on charter schools in a post titled “Obama Administration Enables Billionaire Takeover of America’s Public Schools.” The article describes the Herculean effort required to get the figures from the USDOE and noted that absent the provision by the Department he and some colleagues calculated that $3,300,000,000 of taxpayers funds went to deregulated charter schools, many of which were for profit enterprises funded by billionaires. What happened next?
In October 2015, after waiting for incomplete answers from ED and state agencies, CMD published “Charter School Black Hole,” a special investigation of federal charter school spending and its links to ALEC.
Two months later, on Christmas Eve 2015, ED released a list of the charter schools that had received federal funding since 2006. The list was incomplete, the dollar figures were still unclear, and everyone knows that you release information on Christmas Eve because you don’t want anyone to see it. Still, it was something.
It WAS something… and Beilke was on the mark when he identified what it showed and what he concluded. The $3,300,000,000 spent on charters shows:
…the extent to which the Department of Education’s charter school agenda matches that of the anti-education, pro-privatization movement that funds and promotes so much of the misinformation about public education.
And as Beilke accurately concludes:
This movement already gets all the support it needs from the Waltons, the Koch brothers, the DeVos family, Bill and Melinda Gates, and tech billionaires.
Let’s put the taxpayers’ money to better use.
Why are we spending millions on for-profit charters while public schools are starved for funds and subject to hostile takeovers by “emergency managers”? Could campaign contributions play a role As always, it helps to follow the money….