Online Schools: Worth the Expense?

A Colorado news team recently uncovered startling information about that state's online schools. Many parents turn to online schools as early as kindergarten in order to hopefully provide a more technologically progressive and innovative education. Yet their children may be underserved by an inferior system that lacks appropriate oversight. Meanwhile, the focus on online education is unfairly crippling traditional schools.

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A Bad Report Card

Colorado's Boulder-based Daily Camera recently published a series of reports as the culmination of a 10-month investigation into the state's online schools. The investigation was led by the I-News Network, a news consortium, and Education News Colorado, a nonprofit devoted to in-depth education reporting. The reporters gained unprecedented access to data on 10,500 students from the state's ten largest online schools, going back to 2008. The results are not encouraging.

Approximately half of the students who enroll in online schools leave within one year. In fact, the dropout rate at online schools is four times Colorado's state average. Furthermore, more than 12% of those students drop out permanently. Those that return to brick-and-mortar schools find themselves trailing their peers after having fallen behind academically.

No Captain at the Helm

After a 2006 audit, Colorado's online schools faced intense criticism for a multitude of issues, including a teacher-to-students ratio of 4:1,500 and a rampant misuse of funds. Since then, it seems little has changed. Online schools have undergone explosive growth in students and funding. This year, Colorado online schools have approximately 18,000 students, from kindergarten through high school, and they receive $100 million in tax revenue. Yet no one seems to be steering the ship.

The Republican-led State Board of Education claims that the free market, which in this situation is parents, is providing oversight by exercising choice in where to send their children. Yet their reluctance to provide governmental oversight has led to a dearth of involvement from experts in online education.

Furthermore, efforts to force more effective management have been squashed by the politically well-connected businesses behind the online schools. For example, Hope Online was founded with support from Alex Cranberg, an oil and gas developer and an outspoken Republican. Hope was evaluated to be 'below expectations' in 20 of 25 areas in 2009. Yet when local school districts have voted to remove Hope from operating in their areas, they've been overruled by the state. In essence, the big players that seek to gain from online schools have silenced opposition at the expense of the students' education.

A Bad Deal for Traditional Schools

Online schools aren't only hurting the students who choose to attend them. They're also having dire effects on brick-and-mortar schools. Online schools have been heavily recruiting students away from traditional schools, approaching them during lunch and also setting up storefronts in malls. When the students switch, their former schools lose funding with each lost pupil. When the students decide the online schools aren't working and they return to their old schools mid-year, the funding doesn't follow them back.

For some students, online schools can seem appealing and, in fact, some students perform better in an online environment. Yet the latest research from Colorado suggests that a majority of online students are underperforming and their online schools are more focused on luring new students than providing the ones they have with a solid education. Meanwhile, the marketing machine of the online schools is stealing dollars away from brick-and-mortar schools. With the growth of online schools, it may be that students have more choices, yet fewer good ones.

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