After years of operating largely unfettered, the country's full-time online charter school sector appears to be undergoing a shift.
Nowhere are the changes more evident than in Ohio, where the state's largest cyber charter, the Electronic Classroom of Tomorrow, is in the midst of auctioning off its assets following a startling midyear shutdown.
Cyber charters in Georgia, Indiana, Nevada, and New Mexico are also facing closure.
The trend is notable, given how historically rare it has been for such schools to be shuttered, even when plagued by low achievement and financial scandal.
Supporters of full-time virtual charter schools still defend the sector, saying the schools provide a valuable option for students and families who have struggled in more traditional settings.
"It's important to recognize that online charter schools are often the only charter option available to families in many states," according to Jeff Kwitowski, a spokesman for K12 Inc., the country's largest for-profit operator of online charters, which has one school that will cease operations and another facing possible closure.
"Without these school options, charter school access decreases," Kwitowski wrote in an email. "This is particularly true for families who live in rural areas and other communities with no brick-and-mortar charter schools."
But critics say that offering families "bad schools to choose from" isn't enough.
"Across the country, virtual schools are costing taxpayers hundreds of millions of dollars each year, but providing little or no education to most of their students," said Greg Richmond, the president and CEO of the National Association of Charter School Authorizers, in a statement.
"It's good for both kids and taxpayers that more states and authorizing agencies are holding those schools accountable. We hope more states have the courage to act in the future."
Either way, there's no doubt that the recent headlines are further evidence of a "rather strong shift in the virtual school sector," wrote Gary Miron, an education professor at Western Michigan University and a fellow at the National Education Policy Center, via email.
In NEPC's recent report, "Full-Time Virtual and Blended Schools: Enrollment, Student Characteristics, and Performance," researchers found "larger for-profit operated virtual schools were losing market share in terms of the number of schools they operated," Miron said. "The shift appears to be partially a result of charter school boards waking up and ending contracts with K12 Inc. and Connections [the second largest for-profit operator of full-time online schools.]"
Miron said he expects to see management companies seek to continue leasing their learning platforms and curriculum, but avoid playing a management role in which they will be held accountable for student outcomes.
Following is a brief roundup of recent headlines of cyber charter closings.
The state's first statewide online charter high school, the Graduation Achievement Charter High School, will close next month. The school currently serves more than 2,100 students from more than 200 cities and towns across Georgia, according to a statement released April 9.
"After reviewing the feasibility of renewing its state charter or operation of the organization as a non-profit partner with local school districts, Superintendent Dr. Monica Henson recommended the school's closure to the board," the statement reads. The statement also highlights Graduation Achievement's commitment to serving all students, saying 10 percent of its graduates last spring were homeless.
According to a recent Atlanta Journal-Constitution report:
"The school's average graduate rates are under 10 percent. It did not meet any of the State Charter School Commission of Georgia's academic standards in any year of its charter contract, prompting commission staff in February to recommend the charter not be renewed. That led school officials to withdraw their petition for permission to operate for five more years."
The school received about $8.8 million from the state this school year, the Journal-Constitution reported.
The Hoosier Academies Virtual School will close this summer. Its board voted last September to not seek a renewal of its charter, saying it was unlikely that the school would be approved to continue operating, given its poor academic performance.
"Although the Board had seen evidence of significant improvement at Hoosier Virtual Academy, they did not feel the academic data, available as of October 1, 2017, was sufficient to pass the rigors of a new charter application process," a spokesman said in a statement to Inside Indiana Business.
More recently, the Indianapolis Star reported that 62 people—mostly teachers—will lose their jobs as part of the change.
"The virtual school received an F on state letter grades every year since 2010—six straight years," according to the Star.
This year, Hoosier Academies Virtual School serves about 1,750 students. It is chartered by Ball State University and operated by K12 Inc. The company will continue to operate another cybercharter, Insight School of Indiana, as well as Hoosier Academies Indianapolis, a blended-learning school that mixes online and face-to-face instruction.
In February, the Nevada State Public Charter School authority announced its intention to close another K12-operated cyber charter, the Nevada Virtual Academy, which serves more than 2,200 students statewide.
Lawyers for the school are fighting back, according to a letter sent to the state charter school authority arging the board's procedures are inconsistent and a report earlier this month in the Las Vegas Review-Journal:
"A hearing will be held June 25 to give both sides further chances to state their case. A decision will be made then on next steps, which could include closure of the school or appointment of a new leader to oversee operations...
Nevada Virtual Academy is the third virtual school with which the board has had issues recently.
Nevada Connections Academy and the authority board agreed to an improvement plan that involves more board oversight. Beacon Academy of Nevada moved to an alternative performing rating to better align with the at-risk students served at the school."
The Review-Journal also pointed out the school's mixed academic track record, saying its elementary program received the state's lowest-possible rating, but that its middle school was rated much higher and its high school has an 84 percent graduation rate.
As Education Week reported last month, New Mexico's education chief recently decided not to renew the charter of the state's largest cyber school, New Mexico Connections Academy.
From my colleague Arianna Prothero:
New Mexico Public Education Secretary-designate Christopher Ruszowski said that after receiving two years of F grades from the state's accountability system, the New Mexico Connections Academy, which has around 1,300 students, had failed to live up to its potential, according to the Santa Fe New Mexican...
The prospects look grim for the New Mexico Connections Academy, which [contracts with] Connections Education, the second-largest for-profit charter school operating company in the country.
According to the New Mexican, the school filed a lawsuit last month in the hopes of staving off closure, which is currently slated to happen by June 30.
Allison Bazin, the executive director for public relations at Pearson, which supports Connections Academy schools, said in an email that the company continues to see "interest and growth."
"Three new Connections Academy schools will open in the [2018-19] school year, and a record number of students will graduate from the schools we support this year," Bazin wrote.
"We believe that all schools must be accountable, but ... to truly understand the benefits and challenges of virtual school, accountability frameworks must account for the distinct nature of instruction and the population served by online public schools."
Along with local news organizations like the Columbus Dispatch and the Cleveland Plain Dealer, Education Week has closely chronicled the years-long, highly contentious dispute between the Ohio education department and the state's cyber charters over how student attendance—and thus funding—should be tracked in full-time online schools.
The issue came to a head in January, when the 12,000-student Electronic Classroom of Tomorrow shuttered its doors mid-year. Over the past two years, at least four other, smaller Ohio e-schools have also closed or suspended their operations following similar disputes with the state.
The fight didn't stop with ECOT's sudden closure, however. Recent headlines have touched on a whistleblower claiming that the school intentionally inflated its attendance figures in order to receive more state money, prosecutors subpoenaing data from the school as part of an effort to preserve evidence, and an online auction of property that once belonged to the school and is now being sold off as part of an effort by the state education department to collect $80 million from the school.