More students embrace virtual learning

Malachi Sewell, 6, works through a school lesson in his school room at home with his mother Debra Sewell in 2010. The Sewells are among thousands of South Carolina families who have turned to online charter schools during the last decade. File/Grace Beahm/Staff

Online charter schools have grown exponentially across South Carolina and the nation — and questions about their effectiveness are growing, too.

Today, the state has five virtual charter schools that together enroll roughly 10,000 students, up dramatically from about 2,100 students nine years ago when the state's first cyber schools opened. A 2007 bipartisan bill fueled their growth by authorizing the state's virtual schools program, and since then, taxpayers have footed the bill to the tune of more than $350 million.

Despite this hefty investment, online charter schools have produced dismal results on almost all academic metrics, according to state and district data. On average, less than half of their students graduate on time. At one cyber school, nearly a third of students dropped out last school year. Data from the S.C Public Charter School District, which oversees these schools, shows just one in two virtual students enroll for a full year.

Supporters of online education, including U.S. Department of Education Secretary Betsy DeVos, praise virtual schools for their flexibility, innovation and reach. For struggling, home-bound or bullied students, advocates argue, these schools are lifelines.

But critics contend state taxpayers have spent tens of millions of dollars lining the pockets of the for-profit companies that manage these schools at the expense of their flailing students. 

"It concerns me," said Don McLaurin, chairman of the S.C. Public Charter School District Board of Trustees. "Right now, for a variety of reasons, the virtuals are having performance problems, at least some of them. ... We may have more than we need." 

Lagging behind

On almost every measure of student achievement, virtual schools lag behind their brick-and-mortar counterparts:

  • In 2016, the average four-year graduation rate at the state’s online charter schools was 42 percent. That’s nearly twice as low as the statewide average of 82.6 percent. Three online charter schools — S.C. Whitmore School, S.C. Virtual Charter School and Odyssey Online Learning (formerly Provost Academy) — had lower graduation rates than all but three schools in the entire state. Two of those schools with lower graduation rates were for troubled and at-risk students, and one was an online-based school in Richland School District Two.
  • Those same three online charter schools also had higher dropout rates than every school in the state but one — Greg Mathis Charter, a “last chance” high school in North Charleston. At Odyssey Online, which enrolled 528 students last school year, the dropout rate was 32 percent — more than 10 times the statewide average.
  • On average, only about half of all online charter school students stayed for the entire 2015-16 school year. Roughly one in five students who began the school year at an online charter school left mid-year. By contrast, the charter district’s brick and mortar schools retained more than 80 percent of their students for the whole school year.

“How are these online charter schools serving their students? I’d go as bluntly to say that they're not. They’re serving their shareholders, plain and simple,” said Michael Barbour, an associate professor at Touro University in Vallejo, Calif., and an expert in virtual education.

“These aren’t education bodies; they are corporate bodies and as such, the person they answer to isn’t the students, it isn’t the parents, it’s not even the legislators or regulators that created them. It’s the shareholders,” he said. “And the shareholders only give a damn about one thing, and that’s profit."

All but one of the state's virtual schools, S.C. Whitmore, are run by for-profit education management organizations. The state’s largest online charter schools, S.C. Virtual Charter School and S.C. Connections Academy, which each enroll more than 3,000 students, have received about $100 million a piece in state and federal funds since their inception.

In the 2015-16 fiscal year, S.C. Virtual received more than $24 million in government money. According to its most recent audit, more than half of those funds — about $13 million — was paid to K12 Inc., the nation’s largest for-profit provider of online charter school curriculum, instructional tools and technology.

S.C. Connections Academy, which also received more than $24 million in state and federal funding, was billed more than $22 million last year by Connections Education LLC, a subsidiary of the publicly traded U.K. publisher Pearson, for its services.

Officials at the S.C. Public Charter School District are well aware of the issues endemic among online charter schools.

Under the charter district's own set of accountability measures, known as the School Performance Framework, none of the online charter schools are in "good standing" with the district and three (Cyber Academy, Odyssey Online and S.C. Virtual) are in "breach" of their statutory and contractual obligations due to their students' academic performance. Data from the virtual students' test scores show they're losing ground to their peers at traditional charter schools. 

"(We have) a high standard of expectations for what schools will accomplish, the results our schools will get regardless of their mode of instruction, regardless of their sort of innovation or their theme," said Elliot Smalley, superintendent of the S.C. Public Charter School District. 

"That expectation around outcomes is really the result of not just our mindset but it’s reflective in the charter law," he added. "The law is very explicit about what charter schools need to be pulling off." 

In December, the charter district's Board of Trustees voted to close S.C. Calvert Academy, a K through 8 virtual charter school, at the end of the 2016-17 school year at the district's recommendation because of its "chronic, dismal results," Smalley said. S.C. Calvert is currently appealing the decision.

“We’re putting schools on notice if they're not hitting the marks with proficiency, with their academic goals and with EVAAS, they're hearing from us, ‘This needs to get better,’ ” Smalley said.

"Ultimately, it’s about the courage to make tough decisions about schools that are failing kids year after year and we take that very seriously and we're gonna act with courage and we’re gonna shut down a school, any school, virtual or brick-and-mortar, that's getting dismal results and not living up to the promise of its charter.”

Cherry Daniel, head of school at S.C. Virtual, said the metrics the charter district uses to evaluate its schools are fair only for brick-and-mortar schools, not cyber schools like hers. District leaders, she said, simply "don't understand virtual education."

"It's like me using a yard stick to figure out what dress I need to buy. It's just apples and oranges," she said. "I want to be accountable. It's incumbent upon us to use the taxpayers' money well and be good stewards of it, but accountability is measured in a lot of different ways." 

'The demand was so much' 

For Lee Ann Grover Lange, online education didn't live up to its promises of a self-paced curriculum and flexibility. She withdrew her son, "a night owl," from Cane Bay Elementary in Summerville after third-grade because he suffered from stomach issues and struggled to stay awake in class.

But at S.C. Virtual, Lange said her son wasn't able to work at his own pace, particularly in math, his worst subject. His math class, she said, would move on when her son hadn't yet mastered the material. Although she liked his teachers, sometimes a week would pass before they responded to her emails. 

"Once you get into it, you realize it's not as flexible. I know there were days with my son where we would start school at 10 in the morning and we wouldn't finish until 6 or 7 at night because the demand was so much," she said. "I think people are finding out they're spending more time in a virtual school then they would sitting in a classroom."

When her son enters sixth grade next fall, Lange said she will home-school him. 

But virtual education was a godsend for Carlene Hawes's grandson, who suffers from social anxiety disorder. His classmates teased him so badly Hawes pulled her grandson out of Windsor Hill Elementary in North Charleston when he was in second grade and enrolled him in S.C. Virtual Charter School.

K12 Inc. sent Hawes all the textbooks and instructional supplies her grandson needed. As his "learning coach," Hawes, 70, helped ensure he completed his work and stayed on task. In the fall, her grandson will enter the fifth grade at S.C. Virtual, and Hawes has no regrets. 

"It's great for people who have children with disabilities. You go at our own pace, you can go and do more on the weekend if you want. ... It's very, very flexible," she said. "We don't have to rush out of bed and hurry up and get dressed and go out in the weather. It's nice."

The future of education?

So why do so few full-time online students graduate on time and so many leave or drop out?

John Loveday, principal of S.C. Whitmore School, where the four-year graduation rate was 30 percent last year, said many of the students who enroll at Whitmore are over-age and under-credited, an unintended consequence of the school's mission to attract "at-risk" students who face more impediments to graduation than their peers.

Amanda Ebel, the executive director of S.C. Connections, said students often enroll in online schools with no intention of completing their high school careers there. 

"Some families select a virtual school because they want to solve a short-term problem," she said. "Their plan all along is to transition back to their local brick-and-mortar school. They're not coming here with the intention of staying forever."

But Barbour attributes the lack of achievement at virtual schools to a “one-size-fits-all” model of instruction, “where kids are widgets and you just work your way through the system the same way a car would work its way through Henry Ford’s assembly line.”

“For all of their talk about about personalized learning or individualized instruction or all of those buzzwords that they use in their marketing platforms, these online programs have a single model of instruction delivery and a single model of support,” Barbour said.

David Crook, head of school at Cyber Academy, a K12 Inc. charter school that graduated its first senior class this spring, said it's incumbent upon virtual schools to educate prospective families about whether an online education is truly the best fit for them.

To succeed, students often need support and supervision from their parents, or "learning coaches" as they're dubbed in cyber schools. Virtual schools, Crook added, must also fight against the stigma that their schools are an easier option.

"The families need to make the choice that's best for them. If they come to us and try it out and find something they think it's better suited, I don't think it's necessarily bad," he said. "Any mobility is not great for the continuity of the education ... but I think sometimes it is warranted."

Melanie Barton, executive director of the state's education oversight committee, said the state has found over the years that many students who struggle in traditional settings are nudged toward online as an option.

Despite the schools' poor track record, she thinks online charter schools are here to stay.

"For some children, it’s the best avenue for their learning. For others who are struggling in the traditional system, sometimes it's not the best environment for them, especially if they've had trouble managing their time," she said. "I don’t foresee cutting back on the availability of virtuals in the future because I think that this is the future of education, especially given the teacher shortage."

 How do cyber schools stack up?
 Online Charter School Year opened Student EnrollmentTotal Estimated Taxpayer FundingOn-Time Graduation Rate Dropout Rate  Percentage of students who enrolled for a full year
 Cyber Academy of S.C.* 2013 929 $20,876,486 N/A 18.4% 43%
 Odyssey Online Learning  2009 528 $34,001,662 41.5% 32% 47%
 S.C. Calvert Academy* 2009 216  $10,401,508 N/A N/A 64%
 S.C. Connections Academy 2008 3662 $127,205,739 59.8% 3.2%59% 
 S.C. Virtual Charter School 2008 3275 $154,443,959 37% 24.3% 52%
 S.C. Whitmore School 2011 361 $10,789,379 30% 28.2% 39%

*In 2015-2016, Cyber Academy enrolled students up to 11th grade, and S.C. Calvert enrolled students up to 8th grade.

Source: S.C. Department of Education; S.C. Public Charter School District data for 2015-2016 school year.

Reach Deanna Pan at 843-937-5764 and follower her on Twitter @DDpan. 

Deanna Pan is an enterprise reporter for The Post and Courier, where she writes about education and other issues. She grew up in the suburbs of Cincinnati and graduated with a degree in English from Ohio State University in 2012.