Competitors or Collaborators: Some School Closure Orders Look to Restrict Virtual Charters to Protect Brick-and-Mortar Schools During Coronavirus Crisis

Originally published in The 74 on April 6, 2020.
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While virtual charters have typically earned headlines for struggling academic performanceallegations of enrollment fraud and influential lobbying, the coronavirus pandemic has put the online schools in a new position: as uniquely well-suited to provide education to students amid the global crisis.

Whereas most teachers across the nation are learning for their first time how to virtually educate children — confronting barriers like lack of home internet access and a dearth of online curricula — virtual charters have been able to operate largely unimpeded.

This familiarity with providing remote instruction has raised concern among some public education advocates that families might flock en masse to cyber charters, further disrupting the finances of brick-and-mortar public schools. So far, though, virtual charter leaders have not reported a major surge in enrollment and have stressed publicly that they’re not focused on capitalizing on the crisis. At least some schools, however, have been running new ads on social media, encouraging families to enroll.

As governors ordered public schools closed for the pandemic, most did so in ways that allowed virtual charters to continue operating. For example, Arkansas’s order clarified that just schools with “onsite instruction” will close, and Florida’s guidance shuttered only school “campuses.” Jeff Kwitowski, a senior vice president for K12 Inc., a publicly traded management company for virtual charters, pointed to hurricanes in Florida and Louisiana and wildfires in the West as past examples of when schools closed but virtual charters stayed open.

“It’s very difficult, if not impossible, to close brick-and-mortar school buildings but continue full operations, instruction and student services,” he said. “However, that is feasible for online schools.”

Yet in a handful of states, there was more confusion and outcry, with some closure rules that virtual education providers saw as overly blunt at best.

In Oregon, for example, the state education department announced that their governor’s public school closure order applied to virtual charters too, and it raised concerns about what would happen if too many families switched quickly to the online schools.

Oregon then clarified that its 20 virtual charters could continue their operations but could not enroll new students after March 26. Oregon Department of Education spokesperson Marc Siegel told The 74 that “the primary reason” for this is to ensure that students can access supports they need “without creating further school funding disruptions that would be created by the transfer of students from one school to another.” As of October, 14,047 students were enrolled in Oregon virtual charters, according to Siegel.

Some school choice advocates were outraged, disappointed that Oregon would deny families options at a critical moment — although at least some virtual charters in the state had already reached enrollment capacity by March 26 or were planning to close enrollment regardless.

Shawn Farrens, a vice principal at the Baker Web Academy in Oregon, told The 74 they were always planning to close enrollment by March 30. “Some virtual schools accept kids very late into the school year, but for us, with 10 or 11 years’ worth of experience, we find that if kiddos come in late, it’s not the best scenario for them,” he said. About 2,200 students attend Baker, and had the state not issued its moratorium, Farrens said, they would have accepted just 100 more.

Farrens applied to transfer his own 7-year-old son into Baker from a brick-and-mortar when the state’s closure was first announced in mid-March. “We wanted him to continue with formalized education because my kiddo is easily distracted, so for him to miss out on a few extra weeks of school would be detrimental,” he explained. Now that Oregon’s school closures have been extended even longer, Farrens says he and his wife are “really happy” with their decision and aren’t sure whether they’ll send their son back to his old school when the crisis ends.

Nicholaus Sutherland, the executive director of Oregon Virtual Academy, said his school had reached peak capacity due to 97 new students enrolling between March 16 — when Oregon’s school closure order first took effect — and March 26. Although their enrollment period typically extends to late April, Sutherland told The 74, “Even if enrollment had not been cut off by the state, we would have had to close it due to reaching capacity earlier than anticipated.”

The executive director of Oregon Connections Academy, Allison Galvin, said that “their enrollment pipeline grew quickly from 700 to 1,600,” but that does not mean all those families were then stymied by the moratorium since, as Galvin said, typically not all families complete enrollment. “Many start just because they are interested in exploring their options and want to find out what it takes to enroll. I will say the families that did enroll in the last few weeks seem to be just very engaged and already finding success with us.”

There was also outcry from virtual education advocates in Oklahoma, where the state closed public schools — including virtual schools — between March 17 and April 6. “We are a state system of public education, and we need to be operating together with a uniform approach and with a unified voice,” said State Superintendent of Public Instruction Joy Hofmeister.

But all Oklahoma schools began administering online instruction this week. Shelly Hickman, an assistant superintendent at EPIC, a virtual charter network in Oklahoma, said that while students will be dealing with increased stress at home, “fortunately we’ll be able to provide them with almost everything we’ve given them prior to the crisis.”

In Pennsylvania, the governor ordered all public schools to close on March 13, and virtual charters, which enroll roughly 37,000 students in the state, interpreted that to mean they could continue operating. The following week, the Pennsylvania Association of School Administrators lobbied the governor to place a moratorium on new virtual charter enrollment, with PASA’s executive director telling WHYY he worried how an abrupt loss of funds could hinder brick-and-mortar schools from responding to the pandemic.

So far no moratorium has been issued, but emergency legislation passed by the Pennsylvania legislature on March 25 does say that charter school tuition payments will remain fixed as of March 13, regardless of any additional enrollment.

Ana Meyers, the executive director of the Pennsylvania Coalition of Public Charter Schools, blasted PASA for trying to block families from enrolling in virtual charters. “I think it’s become obvious that a lot of school districts in Pennsylvania were fairly unprepared to continue to educate, and they should not try to prevent the schools that are ready and willing to do so,” she said.

The reports about PASA and Oregon’s funding concerns have led to a flurry of misinformation in subsequent online posts. The Wall Street Journal ran an editorial on March 31 falsely blaming “the Oregon Education Association and its labor allies” for pressuring the state into blocking new virtual charter enrollment. But an OEA spokesperson said the union didn’t lobby state officials on this, and even Sutherland of Oregon Virtual Academy said there was “no unionized uprising.”

On March 26, an analyst at Commonwealth Foundation, a conservative Pennsylvania think tank, accused the Pennsylvania State Education Association (PSEA) of lobbying to block money for virtual charters during the pandemic. It excerpted an email from an unnamed Northeast, Pennsylvania, union leader describing what the union was looking into on members’ behalf, including “how can we prevent mass numbers of students from enrolling in cyber schools.” The Commonwealth writer uses that anonymous email to say that it reveals union president Rich Askey’s “legislative intent.” Later that day, citing the Commonwealth’s post, a columnist for the conservative Townhall news site falsely attributed the email quote about blocking cyber charter enrollment to Askey, not to the unnamed union leader.

Chris Lilienthal, a spokesperson for PSEA, told The 74 the organization was “not involved” in lobbying to freeze charter funding. “We’re comfortable with the provision — it was to provide stability, but it was not something that was at the top of our list,” he said, adding that their focus was on waiving both standardized tests and the 180-instructional-day requirement and ensuring that school maintenance staff had proper protective gear.

For now, many virtual charters have not reported a surge in new students trying to enroll.

“I think most families in this country are really just dealing with Maslow’s hierarchy of needs,” said Hickman, of EPIC. Although students can enroll in Oklahoma virtual schools at any time, Hickman said her network, which enrolls nearly 30,000 students, is not encouraging that, and cited supply chain issues for laptops and other digital resources.

Chandre Sanchez-Reyes, executive director of Indiana Connections Academy and Indiana Connections Career Academy, said her virtual schools are not enrolling any new students this year and “not too many families” have contacted her about fall enrollment.

“It’s not going to be helpful to the school if all of a sudden you take a surge of 1,000 kids,” said Kwitowski of K12 Inc. “Teachers would be overloaded, and it’s not clear all those students will get funded.”

But some virtual charters have been running new ads encouraging sign-ups for their schools. On March 25, Century Cyber Charter School in Pennsylvania launched a new Facebook ad encouraging enrollment for this school year, and on March 30, the Virtual Learning Academy in New Hampshire started advertising, emphasizing that “there is NO admissions process [and] students can enroll anytime.” K12 Inc. has also been running new ads for fall enrollment.

“I haven’t seen a surge, but I’m pretty sure it’s coming,” said Sutherland, whose Oregon Virtual Academy is a K12 Inc. affiliate. “I think a lot of people will want to make a move to where their student can continue without disruption.”

Virtual charter leaders, for their part, are saying they want to use this opportunity to share what they know with brick-and-mortar schools and in no way profit off COVID-19. Many are offering free training and webinars to brick-and-mortar educators and complimentary access to their digital learning tools.

The lines can get blurry, though. One K12 Inc. ad, which launched April 1 and ran for several days last week, linked to a page with both free educational resources and steps to enroll in virtual charters. “We know times are confusing right now for many students and families. K12 is here to help,” the ad says, illustrated with a video montage about coronavirus school closures.

Last week, Sanchez-Reyes co-hosted a webinar advising Indiana charter colleagues on virtual compliance with special education laws, and this week she’s hosting another one on social and emotional learning.

“Most of us came from brick-and-mortars ourselves,” she said, “so it’s been nice to collaborate.”

The Teachers’ Movement Goes Virtual

Originally published in The Atlantic on April 11, 2018.
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When West Virginia teachers initiated a nine-day labor strike this past winter, they secured national attention and a 5 percent pay raise. Oklahoma and Kentucky educators followed suit, with Arizona teachers threatening to do the same. Amid all this organizing was another strike threat, not previously reported, last week in California: between teachers in online classrooms and the organization that employs them.

Students enrolled in virtual schools (sometimes called “cyber schools” or “virtual academies”) take their classes online. It’s a small phenomenon, representing less than 1 percent of students, but a fast-growing one. According to the National Education Policy Center, about 279,000 students enrolled in virtual schools in 2016, up from roughly 200,000 in 2012. Education experts have been concerned by the growth of virtual K-12 education, especially virtual charter schools, which are publicly funded and privately managed. U.S. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos has touted virtual charter schooling as a particularly ripe area for expansion, emphasizing its flexibility and potential to offer courses that a student’s traditional school might not have. But, in practice, virtual schools, especially charters, have tended to deliver significantly lower academic results than brick-and-mortar ones. “Academic benefits from online charter schools are currently the exception rather than the rule,” wrote the authors of a 2015 report from the Stanford Center for Research on Education Outcomes.

While some teachers gravitate to virtual charters because of the flexibility it offers, salaries can be low, and class sizes are, on average, much larger than in brick-and-mortar charter schools or traditional public schools. (Though virtual teachers don’t have to manage physical classrooms, large class sizes still equate to a heavier workload.) The overwhelming majority of virtual teachers are not unionized. But in 2014, educators at California Virtual Academies (CAVA), California’s largest network of online charter schools with more than 10,000 students and about 450 teachers, decided to create a union, California Virtual Educators United, under the umbrella of the California Teachers Association. After two years of legal battles, CAVA recognized the teachers’ union, and starting in September 2016, the parties began negotiating their first contract over salaries, class sizes, and other issues.

The negotiations represent an important test case of how educators might wield power in a future where online education becomes even more common. According to Brianna Carroll, a high-school social-science teacher in Livermore, California, and president of the teachers’ union, bargaining had been slow-going, especially in recent weeks, when negotiators hit an impasse over class size. Educators said the number of students under their supervision had spiraled out of control, with some teachers stuck overseeing virtual classrooms exceeding forty students, and demanded class sizes be capped. “Either you have teachers who are burning themselves out because they’re trying to meet the needs of everyone, or you aren’t meeting the needs of everyone,” Carroll told me. “It’s really one or the other.”

April Warren, CAVA’s head of schools, declined to comment on many details of the negotiations. “CAVA is dedicated to working together with CVEU to reach a fair and equitable settlement so that we may continue to build upon CAVA’s unique and special achievements in support of the students and families across California,” she told me in an email.

While virtual schools across the country face some of the same struggles roiling traditional public schools, namely decreased state funding per pupil even after local economies have rebounded since the recession, virtual teachers also have to reckon with a newer threat: the involvement of for-profit companies that seek to deliver profits to their investors. CAVA, for instance, is a nonprofit network, but its operations are deeply intertwined with K12 Inc., a publicly traded company based in Virginia. K12, founded in 2000 by William Bennett, the education secretary under Ronald Reagan, and Ronald Packard, a former Goldman Sachs banker, is the nation’s largest supplier of management services and curriculum for virtual charters. The company, according to Education Week, has built a powerful lobbying operation in more than 20 states.

While CAVA describes its schools as independent, Jessica Calefati of San Jose’s The Mercury News, who investigated the arrangement back in 2016, found tax records showing that K12 employees themselves had established more than a dozen online schools in California. CAVA contracts with K12 for all sorts of services: The company provides the schools’ curricula, oversees their budgets, trains teachers, offers technical assistance, and even handles media communications. Calefati wrote, “Accountants and financial analysts interviewed by this newspaper, including several who specialize in school finance, say they’ve never seen anything quite like the arrangement between K12 and the public online academies.” (A CAVA official called The Mercury News investigation a “gross mischaracterization” of the organization’s work.)

CAVA teachers say they organized a union in part to push back on K12’s corporate influence over their schools. “For so long it’s been focused on how to use this charter-school concept to turn a dollar, rather than how to use online tools to support more students,” said Carroll, the union president. “We’re really using the union to push CAVA to have different goals.”

The virtual charter network might benefit from some new goals. In 2016, then-state Attorney General Kamala Harris alleged that K12 and CAVA had used false advertising and inflated their student-attendance numbers to collect extra state funds. Harris also alleged that K12 had trapped the network in debt by saddling cava with an unfair contract. CAVA and K12 agreed that year to settle with the state for $168.5 million. K12 emphasized it had admitted no wrongdoing, and said the attorney general “grossly mischaracterized the value of the settlement just as it did with regard to the issues it investigated.” In an email to The Atlantic, the K12 spokesperson Michael Kraft disputed the AG’s characterization of the schools as indebted. Also in 2016, The Mercury News reported that fewer than half of  CAVA’s high-schoolers earned diplomas, and almost none were qualified to attend the state’s public universities. (K12 disputes this, noting the state does not always have reliable data for nontraditional schools with higher student mobility rates.) CAVA was also hit with a nearly $2 million fine in 2017 after California’s Department of Education found continued issues with attendance reporting and other practices. (CAVA disputed this, releasing a statement that CAVA schools “demonstrated they were consistently operating in full compliance with all state laws and regulations” and planned to appeal the financial penalty.)

Last fall, faced with a stalemate with CAVA over salaries, workday length, and class size, the teachers authorized a strike: More than 90 percent of the 450-member union voted to back their bargaining team if it called for walking off the job. Shortly after that, CAVA administrators tentatively agreed to some new concessions, according to copies of signed agreements provided by the union: a pay raise, a shorter work year, and fewer employment duties, among others.

Still, the fight around class size remained unresolved. CAVA teachers argued that class-size limits would improve academic quality. Carroll said the charter network maintained during negotiations that caps would hinder their needed flexibility. (CAVA declined to comment on its position on class sizes.) When they were still unable to reach an agreement, following a two-day fact-finding mediation last week, union leaders announced they were preparing for a first-of-its-kind strike. A virtual-charter strike would have meant that all online classes would be canceled, and teachers would meet in person to picket at locations such as the CAVA offices in Simi Valley. The strike was to be held in late April or early May.

But the day after the teachers’ strike announcement, April Warren, CAVA’s head of schools, proposed a compromise resolution: Classrooms could be capped at about 30 students, according to a copy of the signed agreement provided by the union, and if a classroom were to exceed that threshold, the teacher would be compensated accordingly. The teachers agreed. “I think the strike played a huge role in helping us resolve this, because that’s what CAVA was constantly saying—‘well, we don’t want a strike,’” Carroll said. Warren declined to comment on the strike threat, but on Monday, she confirmed the parties had reached a tentative agreement and were “working on a timeline for full ratification.” A spokesman for K12 declined to comment.

Carroll says teachers at other virtual charter networks have been reaching out to her, intrigued by her and her colleagues’ union work. While the West Virginia and Oklahoma teacher strikes demonstrate how educators at traditional public schools can still assert formidable collective power, just 11 percent of charters in the United States are currently unionized, and among virtual charters, that number stands at 9 percent. There are several reasons for this: Most charter-school backers and funders take a relatively anti-union stance, asserting that unions will impede a school’s flexibility, and therefore its ability to deliver the best education possible for students. Unions have also been slow to organize charter-school teachers, long viewing them as scabs who threaten their livelihoods. Labor groups have softened their stance towards charter teachers in recent years, but tensions remain as unions continue to work politically to halt charter-school growth.

A successful contract negotiation for cava teachers, though, could help ignite similar efforts elsewhere. The anything-goes approach to virtual education has made it alluring to operators trying to cut costs or make a buck. But if their workers have any say in the matter, online charters’ freewheeling days may be numbered. That would be good not just for educators but for the students entrusted to them.

Can Teachers Unions Help Online Charter Schools?

Originally published in The American Prospect on November 27, 2015.
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In a major win for the movement to organize charter schools, a California state labor board recently ruled that teachers working for the state’s largest online charter network could form a union.

Teachers for the network, known as the California Virtual Academies, have been battling since April of 2014 with administration officials who refused to negotiate. That’s when more than two-thirds of the so-called CAVA network’s teachers voted in favor of unionizing.

Roughly 15,000 students attend CAVA’s 11 campuses across the state. CAVA administrators had argued that teachers at those disparate campuses should form their own individual unions instead of organizing a single union that would represent them all.

In a 77-page legal decision, the California Public Employment Relations Board (PERB) rejected this argument—setting the stage for CAVA teachers to move forward with their network-wide union. The California Teachers Association (CTA), a state affiliate of the National Education Association, will serve as their exclusive bargaining representative.

To teachers who have been agitating for a union, gaining the leverage to improve working conditions is a key first step to boosting student performance—something the online charter sector greatly needs. The teachers’ labor victory comes on the heels of several recent reports concluding that online charter schools are performing extremely poorly. Some 200,000 students take online classes through such institutions nationwide.

“Academic benefits from online charter schools are currently the exception rather than the rule,” stated researchers in a report released by the Center for Research on Academic Outcomes on October 27. It was one of three different research studies released last month that arrived at similar conclusions.

Earlier this year, the progressive group In the Public Interest, which focuses on contracting and privatization, issued a report that looked specifically at problems within the CAVA network. It found evidence of poor academic outcomes, financial conflicts of interest, and insufficient supports for teachers, among other things.

CAVA is managed by K-12 Inc., a publicly traded company based in Virginia that made $55 million in profits last year. The K-12 Inc. schools offer classes to some 14,500 students across the country.

K-12 Inc. officials diputed the methodologies behind the critical reports. But the CAVA teachers who have been organizing for a union said the findings did not surprise them.

“I think those reports actually helped us because they just reinforced what we were already seeing with our own students,” said Stacie Bailey, a CAVA teacher on the organizing committee.“We’ve been trying to push the school to focus more on instruction for a long time.”

Bailey actually spent several years working as a CAVA administrator, until she grew so frustrated with how things were run that she went back into teaching.

“Personally, I joined the union drive because I just see that teachers do not have a voice at our school,” said Bailey. “It’s too top-town. I tried to give teachers that voice while working as an administrator, but I was not successful.”

Working for an online charter school poses some unique challenges for teachers looking to organize. “We engage in the workplace from our own homes, we are isolated, we do not see each other,” said Jen Shilen, a high school history and economics teacher who worked at CAVA from the fall of 2012 up until this past summer. “The process of building rapport with colleagues can be challenging.”

CAVA teachers say they grew interested in the idea of forming a union when their workloads and responsibilities spiked dramatically beginning in the fall of 2013—particularly when they were asked to perform more clerical duties. More paperwork meant less time to work directly with students, teachers say. Organizing talks kicked off at the end of 2013, and CAVA teachers soon approached the California Teachers Association for assistance.

“Some of us used to work for union protected schools, so we knew who to talk to,” explained Shilen. CTA helped the 700 teachers fan out across the state to coordinate with one another; helped them with press outreach, and connected teachers with legislators.

The union vote took place in the spring of 2014. “It was rather surprising that it was as successful as it was,” remarked Bailey. “We had to call every teacher, and send them a petition and they had to print it, sign it, and mail it back to us. That’s a lot to ask of someone, and we ended up getting a super majority voting for the union.”

But CAVA administrators rejected the petition, insisting that the teachers did not constitute one legal entity. “CAVA’s argument was that CAVA does not exist,” said Shilen, wryly.

What came next was a protracted legal battle, including five days of hearings in a state administrative court in February and March, with lawyers filing their legal briefs in May. In June, 16 teachers filed 69 complaints against CAVA on a variety of grounds, including violations student privacy laws, misuse of federal funds, and inadequate services to students with disabilities. CAVA’s senior head of schools, Katrina Abston, dismissed the complaints.

Teachers have waited since mid-May for the decision from the state Public Employment Relations Board, which arrived on October 30. “We were hoping the decision would come in July, about six weeks after the lawyers turned in their briefs,” said Bailey. “It took five months.”

CTA President Eric Heins praised the PERB decision in a statement and urged CAVA administrators not to appeal this “historic ruling.” Now, Heins stated, “teachers can begin to address the problems that are hurting their students, such as insufficient time spent on instruction, high teacher turnover, and too much public money going out of state.”

The CTA’s support for CAVA teachers has raised some eyebrows, particularly since the union has staked out some anti-charter policy positions over the past decade. As I reported in The American Prospect in June, the relationship between charter teachers and unions is evolving and complicated.

CAVA administrators, who did not return The American Prospect’s request for comment, have moved to appeal PERB’s decision.

“The ruling states CTA may seek collective representation of all teachers at all CAVA charter schools, notwithstanding that CAVA is not itself an established public school employer,” Abston told the San Bernadido Sun this month.

But CAVA teachers are unfazed.

“Even if they’re going to appeal, we’re still a union; it doesn’t stop our forward momentum,” said Bailey confidently. “We’re not worried about it.”