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Virtual schools pose problems, LFT says

LFT President Steve Monaghan tells a BESE committee about problems with virtual charter schools.

Study says virtual charters are suspect for both financial and student performance reasons

(Baton Rouge – September 16, 2009) Considering the problems plaguing virtual or cyber schools in other states, Louisiana should proceed carefully before granting charters to schools that exist mainly on the Internet, Louisiana Federation of Teachers President Steve Monaghan said today.

“The decision you will soon be asked to make is not without consequences,” Monaghan told a committee of the Board of Elementary and Secondary Education. He was speaking about requests to issue charters for three new schools the likes of which haven’t been seen before in Louisiana.

The stakes are high because Louisiana currently has no state guidelines for establishing virtual or cyber schools. If these charters are granted, Monaghan said, they will effectively become the state template for all such schools.

BESE will consider the charter requests in October, but asked the Department of Education to provide background information on virtual schools this month. The department gave members of the State Authorized School Oversight Committee copies of four briefs that describe the so-called new frontier of cyber schools in glowing terms.

Monaghan told the committee that other published studies question the efficacy of cyber or virtual schools, and document the negative effects they can have on other charter and traditional public schools.

A RAND Corporation study on virtual charter schools notes that virtual charters are suspect for both financial and student performance reasons, Monaghan said. In California, for example, the RAND study “found that non-classroom based charter schools exhibited lower test scores” than traditional or charter schools.

In Ohio, where 34 of the state’s 328 charters are virtual, their effect on student achievement was “negative, substantial and (in three of four estimates) statistically significant,” according to RAND.

A study by a consortium of education advocates found significant problems in an Oregon cyber school experiment, Monaghan said. There, virtual school vendors laid claim to the same portion of state per-pupil funding that was given to other charter and traditional public schools, even though the cost of educating a “laptop student” is just 40% of the cost of a “brick and mortar student.”

Compounding the problem, the study says, is that the Oregon Virtual School District “in essence created a back-door voucher program for home schoolers and other students who have opted out of public education but still want access to the system’s funding to pursue this alternative. Meanwhile, the vast majority of home schooled students do not have access to public dollars for their curricula, and traditional public school students have been deprived of resources intended for their schools.”

A third study confirmed in Pennsylvania the lessons learned from the Oregon experiment: “More than 60% Pennsylvania’s cyber school enrollees were formerly home schooled…as home school parents opt for cyber schools to augment home-school resources, the funding burden shifts from family to taxpayers without input from local school districts or residents…Thus, an unintended result of this unrestricted school choice has been diluted local political control.”

The Pennsylvania study concluded, “Relying on cyber charter schools to develop reliable, honest costs per student and invoice an independent third party, while services to an unrelated user are provided, is a market system that includes consumer choice but fails to incorporate competitive pressures on price, product, and service quality.”

Said Monaghan, “Before we rush headlong into the brave new world of cyber schools, we should carefully consider all of the unintended consequences. There is ample evidence of financial and educational pitfalls with these schools.”