Virtual schools experienced little disruption and received equal viral help

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BOSTON – While many schools rushed to switch to online courses last year, virtual charter schools across the country have seen little disruption. For them, online learning was already the norm. Most have few, if any, physical classrooms.

Yet when Congress sent $ 190 billion in pandemic aid to schools, virtual charters received as much as any other school because the same formula applied to all schools, with over money for those in very poor areas, an Associated Press investigation found.

“It’s outrageous that they are getting so much money,” said Gordon Lafer, an economist at the University of Oregon and a member of the Eugene, Oregon, school board. “There were all kinds of extraordinary costs because of COVID, but online schools had none.”

The federal aid injection has ignited a decades-long debate about the role of the country’s more than 200 fully virtual charter schools, which are state-funded schools that operate independently or under the aegis of public school districts. . They usually offer courses through online learning platforms provided by private companies.

Leaders of online schools say virtual charters offer a valuable option for students who don’t do well in traditional classrooms. But critics say they drain money from other schools and often lead to poor student outcomes.

Using data provided by state governments, The Associated Press has tracked more than $ 550 million that has gone to virtual charters across the country during three rounds of pandemic relief. The analysis, which covered allocations to 76 virtual schools in 10 states, showed that some online charters received the highest funding rates in their states, getting as much per student as some of the poorer districts.

The federal government has not released national data on money allocated to virtual charters. Some states, including Wisconsin and Texas, said allocations for online schools are managed by local districts and not tracked by the state.

Most of the pandemic aid was distributed using the same formula as money from Title I, the largest source of federal funding for public schools. But some states have also used discretionary funds of federal money to send additional aid to virtual charters, most notably in Idaho, Minnesota and Ohio.

Of the 76 virtual schools tracked by the AP, more than a third are operated by the two largest companies in the industry, Stride Inc. and Connections Academy. Others are run by different for-profit corporations, while others are run by non-profit organizations or state or local governments.

Virtual school officials say the money was needed to serve a wave of students who were transferred from mainstream schools during the pandemic. But leaders at some mainstream schools wonder why help went to virtual charters that mostly did business as usual and didn’t have to worry about social distancing or sanitizing.

In Philadelphia, the Esperanza Cyber ​​Charter School received $ 11,300 per student, the highest rate among virtual schools followed by the AP. That is compared to $ 12,300 in public schools in Harrisburg, one of Pennsylvania’s poorest districts, and $ 7,500 in schools in Pittsburgh.

Esperanza, run by a local nonprofit, teaches about 800 students in the Latino neighborhoods of Philadelphia, more than 90% of whom come from poverty.

When the pandemic hit last year, Esperanza never interrupted classes. Teachers have started working from home rather than the only school building, but little has changed for the student experience, said Jon Marsh, CEO of the school.

Marsh said he sees both sides of the federal relief debate. His school’s transition to teaching during the pandemic has been relatively smooth, he said, but there have been new costs. Federal funding has made it possible to purchase computers and monitors for teachers, for example, and new software to help students learning English.

Still, Esperanza’s funding was immense for its size. He received almost $ 9 million, more than what the school spends in a typical year. And so far he’s spent less than half of that, leaving school officials wondering how to use the remaining $ 5 million.

“I would love to have the opportunity to distribute this money to families in need, but you can’t. It’s not on the list, ”Marsh said.

Other states with online schools include Ohio, where virtual charters received $ 101 million in federal funding, and Oklahoma, where they received $ 82 million. Smaller amounts went to virtual schools in states such as Arizona, California, Idaho and Michigan.

Pennsylvania, long a battleground in the cyber-school debate, saw the biggest sum, with $ 235 million earmarked for 11 virtual schools. These assignments angered leaders of some traditional schools who said the money was desperately needed in public districts.

“It just doesn’t fit me when you look at the intent of the legislation,” said Chris Celmer, who until recently was acting superintendent at Harrisburg, who used his money to buy computers for students and improve now ventilation through the 12th building in the neighborhood. “These dollars could have been distributed to the other 500 school districts in the state of Pennsylvania.”

Commonwealth Charter Academy, Pennsylvania’s largest virtual school, saw enrollment double last year, reaching nearly 20,000 students.

Commonwealth received approximately $ 4,000 per student, for a total of over $ 60 million. Much of the initial funding was used to hire new teachers and purchase laptops for students. Newer funding will be used to help late reading students, said Timothy Eller, spokesperson for the school.

“Students in online charter schools are not second-class students,” Eller said. “Just because they’re participating in a cyber charter doesn’t mean they should get less funding. “

For the online schooling industry, the pandemic has provided an unprecedented financial boost.

In April 2020, as students flocked to online charters, the CFO of Stride Inc. told investors that COVID-19 would bring “a lasting tailwind to online education.” Virtual schools, some of which spend millions of dollars a year on advertising, have presented themselves as a better alternative to public schools that have struggled to offer online classes.

Stride’s latest financial reports showed a 48% increase in revenue since last year, most of it from contracts with schools. The company did not respond to a request for information about federal aid from its schools.

The cost of adding new students is usually covered by public funding for schools, Lafer said, and virtual schools are designed to expand services at low cost.

“As far as I know, the money is 100% profit,” said Lafer, who has researched charter schools online.

Recognizing that virtual charters have lower costs, some states regularly fund them at lower rates than traditional schools. Some states have applied the same logic when disbursing discretionary pandemic aid reserves.

In South Carolina, Republican Gov. Henry McMaster gave charter schools $ 9 million to offset increased enrollment. But while traditional charters received $ 220 per student, virtual schools received $ 116 per student. Separately, McMaster wanted to use $ 32 million in federal pandemic aid to provide scholarships for students to attend private schools, but the state Supreme Court blocked the plan.

Even some virtual charters wonder if they need their full allowances. At Agora Cyber ​​Charter School, a school in Pennsylvania affiliated with Stride, officials said they did not intend to use the school’s $ 38 million. Agora officials are investigating whether it is possible to return the unused money.

“We try to be very deliberate to make sure that any dollar we take out of it is spent on serving students,” said Richard Jensen, CEO. “It’s the end of the game for me.”


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