The education of thousands of North Carolina students and millions of taxpayer dollars are currently at risk in the latest school privatization scheme that continues to draw far too little attention from the media and even many education advocates.
Two online charter schools opened in the state this fall operated by two different for-profit companies, one of which, K12 Inc., has a scandal-plagued record in other states.
A provision snuck into the budget in the 2014 legislative session ordered the State Board of Education to approve two virtual charters as pilot programs. Only two companies applied to run the online schools, guaranteeing they would both be selected.
Numerous studies have raised serious questions about the performance of virtual charters and K12 schools in particular.
A report by a Washington think tank about a California virtual charter run by the company found dramatically lower test scores than traditional public schools, startling high dropout rates, questionable attendance figures and a host of other problems.
Two months ago a report from the Center for Research on Education Outcomes (CREDO) at Stanford found that there are problems with online charters in general, not just the ones run by K12.
The report was funded by the Walton Family Foundation, a strong advocate for the charter school movement, and found that students in online charters made far less progress than their counterparts in traditional public schools.
One of the authors of the report said the gains in math were so small that it was “literally as though the student did not go to school for the entire year.”
This week brought maybe the most compelling evidence of all that the General Assembly made a terrible decision to order the State Board to approve the schools.
The former education commissioner of Tennessee, Kevin Huffman, described his experience of the last four years overseeing the virtual charter in his state, also operated by K12, on the education blog The Seventy Four.
Huffman, himself a strong pro-charter and school choice advocate appointed by conservative Republican Governor Bill Haslam, pulls few punches in his essay that includes this summary.
“From these modest beginnings and with the help of an unscrupulous operator, an inept school district, and the generally screwed-up politics of education, the worst-performing school in Tennessee opened and remains open to this day,” Huffman says.
Huffman goes on to describe how the virtual school was plagued by operational problems from the beginning and that K12 sent lobbyists instead of education specialists to meetings called to talk about the miserable performance of students at the school.
His entire essay ought to be required reading for every member of the General Assembly and the State Board of Education.
Huffman clearly believes that the legislation that created the virtual charter in Tennessee, run by the same company running one in North Carolina, benefitted the company not the students who enrolled.
And he has some important advice for ideologues intent on dismantling public schools in the name of school choice who seem to believe that every form of privatization is a good one and that the market will decide.
“The “marketplace” fails when we are not able to ensure that parents know that the school they are choosing has a running track record of failure,” Huffman says. “Clearly, there is a critical regulatory role, and we cannot simply assume that an unfettered choice environment will automatically lead to good outcomes.”
That’s exactly what the folks running the General Assembly assume, that privatization and “choice” are always better.
But the evidence could not be clearer. Virtual charters, especially ones operated by K12, are not in the best interests of students or taxpayers.
It’s not school choice anyway, it is education hucksterism enabled by the rigid ideology of legislative leaders that holds that every new privatization idea in education is better than traditional public schools that are underfunded and understaffed with teachers who are underpaid and underappreciated.
North Carolina officials need to listen to the former education commissioner of Tennessee.
Chris Fitzsimon is the Founder and Executive Director of N.C. Policy Watch.