By GAIL COLLINS Published: December 2, 2011 NYTimes
I always thought that the only kids getting their entire public schooling online were in the hospital, living in the Alaskan tundra, or pursuing a career as a singing orphan in the road company of “Annie.” Not so. There are now around 250,000 cyberschool students in kindergarten through high school and the number is growing fast.
If I had managed to envision a lot of students going to school online, I’d have imagined them being home-schooled by a diligent middle-class parent. But, lately, the target seems to be low-income families. Andy Berke, a state senator in Chattanooga, Tenn., says that when an educational company named K12 Inc. held a meeting to publicize its online taxpayer-funded academy, it chose “one of the poorest neighborhoods” in his district. In Pennsylvania, where K12 runs a statewide online charter school called Agora, you can go to the Web site and watch Head of School Sharon Williams explain about “online learning as an alternative to a violent in-school experience.”
O.K., here is my first question: Does full-time online learning really work for disadvantaged kids who may be alone at home all day?
Kevin Welner of the University of Colorado did a review of all the information available on this and, in fact, on the entire question of how well full-time online learning works for kids in elementary through high school. The answer was: nobody knows.
“The most detailed study is a couple of blog entries,” he said.
Jim Shelton, an official at the U.S. Department of Education’s Office of Innovation and Improvement, said that he had not seen much rigorous research on the subject, either: “In fact, none that I am aware of.”
Yet we are zooming forward as fast as new students can be recruited. I cannot help but suspect part of the impetus for this speedy transition is the profit motive.
K12 Inc. is a big private online education business. It was founded by a former Goldman Sachs banker and by William Bennett, the Republican writer and talk-show host, with an infusion of cash from the former disgraced junk-bond king Mike Milken. Its teachers generally work from their homes, communicating with their students by e-mail or phone. (At one point in Arizona, essays of students attending an online academy run by K12 were outsourced to India for correction. K12 says the program was a pilot and was discontinued.)
The company’s opponents in Tennessee are particularly bitter about the fact that when K12 came in, the state’s own online educational program went out. “It won numerous awards, the children were successful, and last session they made a decision to junk it, because K12 Inc. made a decision to lobby the Legislature to pass the Virtual School Act,” said Berke.
Representative Harry Brooks, the chief sponsor of the Virtual Public Schools Act, does not see it that way at all. A federal grant for the program ran out, he said, and “it wound up being difficult in reference to funding.” His own bill, Brooks added, just gives local school districts the authority to start their own online education.
Anyway, here is what happened as soon as the law went into effect: K12 made an arrangement with the rural Union County school district, which became the home of the new Tennessee Virtual Academy. Any Tennessee parent can pull her child out of the local system and enroll him in Union and the academy.
There are now about 2,000 students in the virtual school, which is just about the same number of people who reside in Maynardville, the Union County seat. The district gets a small cut of the $5,387 in state aid that attaches to each student, while K12 gets the rest. Yet another thing we don’t really know is how much it costs K12 to run the academy, although we do know company profits have been soaring.
The school day tends to be shorter, thus providing more free time for students to entertain themselves. “Often times these schools, as they grow, develop partnerships with YMCAs, community colleges and other centers that allow schools to be able to have access to facilities,” said a spokesman for K12. He admitted that most of the Tennessee students were not likely to be dropping in on Maynardville.