Students work on their laptops in Dorchester, Massachusetts.
Students work on their laptops in Dorchester, Massachusetts. Adam Hunger/Reuters

While these schools may be cheaper to run, they haven’t demonstrated a record of success.

Last Wednesday, the office of New York City Mayor, Bill de Blasio, announced that Miami-Dade School Superintendent, Alberto Carvalho, would be the new chancellor of New York City’s school system, and that Carvalho would be in New York City the following day for a formal announcement. On Thursday, Carvalho was still in Miami. He then stunned New York City officials when, during the course of a televised Miami school board meeting, Carvalho disappeared twice, finally returning to announce that, after hearing from students and members of the community who pleaded with him to stay, he would remain in Florida.

New York City officials had some choice words for Carvalho on Twitter, but at least one of his signature accomplishments might make one wonder why they thought he was the right person for New York City in the first place: In Miami, Carvalho founded an Enriched Virtual learning school, iPrep Academy, where he still serves as principal. iPrep Academy is an online school that works with a company called Florida Virtual School (FLVS), and online learning is the core educational delivery method, though students also have the opportunity to work with a teacher in a small-group setting a few times each week. This is a growing educational form for racially and economically diverse school systems like New York City’s, the nation’s largest and one of the most segregated. The New York City system educates 1.1 million children each year, over 70 percent of whom come from families that receive some form of public assistance.

In school systems with high levels of poverty and “hard to educate” Black and Latino students, cyber schools are on the rise. They are a more cost-effective option for cash-strapped systems given that they reduce the number of teachers needed, and in some cases, there are no buildings to maintain, heating or cooling costs to pay, or administrative and service staff to hire. Though seemingly cost-effective, these schools are often a separate and unequal form of education that fails to adequately educate some of the country’s neediest students.

Rocketship, a well-known non-profit charter school chain illustrates some of the difficulties with this model. Launched in the Bay Area in 2006, Rocketship’s instructional model, much like iPrep’s, revolves around a blended learning approach where elementary and secondary school students split time between computer-aided learning and in-person instruction. Rocketship’s flexible schools aimed to cut staff and save hundreds of thousands of dollars annually per school. Initially, the schools were praised for their innovation and the high standardized test scores earned by the students, who were overwhelmingly poor and nonwhite. However, by 2012, researchers and educators raised concerns about graduates from Rocketship elementary schools, noting that they were more proficient at following directions than thinking for themselves. Preparing students to succeed on standardized tests is not the same thing as teaching students to think creatively and critically.

Nonetheless, the growth of such schools continues despite the fact that research by Stanford’s Center for Research on Education Outcomes found that approximately 70 percent of students at cyber charter schools fall behind their peers at traditional public institutions.

Of course, many support the reallocation of educational funds to provide greater access to technology for vulnerable students. Those supporters might say the expansion of virtual schools is an opportunity for parents to have the freedom to move their children away from a “one size fits all” model. They might say that such a change would be particularly beneficial for students who are poor and of color and who are often failed by traditional brick-and-mortar schools. However, a look at the performance of cyber schools makes clear there is reason for concern and yet they are expanding rapidly across the country in communities that educate our most economically and racially segregated students.

Across the country, in districts that are rural and poor, and overwhelmingly with Republican governors and legislatures, in states like Florida, Alabama, Mississippi, and South Carolina, virtual schools are quickly becoming the format of choice despite politicians’ having little proof that cyber education positively affects achievement.

In Pennsylvania where cyber schools enroll more than 35,000 students, a Stanford University Study found that none of the cyber schools met state benchmarks in 2013-14. The record of Pennsylvania’s cyber charter schools was so abysmal that the state of Pennsylvania denied all applications to open new cyber charter schools from 2010 to 2013.

Nonetheless, across the country, between 2008 and 2014, 175 bills that expanded online schooling options passed in thirty-nine states and territories (including the District of Columbia). In Florida, the 2011 Digital Learning Act, a law with implications for students in grades K-12, requires students to take at least one online course to graduate from high school. Four other states—Alabama, Arkansas, Michigan, and Virginia—have similar requirements. In thirty states and Washington, D.C., there are schools that are fully online schools. Yet in Miami, Carvalho’s home district, for example, virtual schools are bedeviled by poor academic performance and lagging graduation rates.

As much a business strategy as one promoting learning, virtual education often allows private companies to use taxpayer money to enrich shareholders rather than contributing to solving the riddle of providing quality education for students in schools that are hobbled by inequality and poverty.

This week, Mayor de Blasio announced he’d finally found a chancellor who would accept the position: Richard Carranza, the former superintendent of the Houston Public schools, another highly segregated school system with a thriving cyber schools sector.

There are many roads that lead to educational excellence. It’s not likely that one paved with more money for businesses and fewer in-person interactions for students, is one of them.

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