A few weeks ago, Ryan Quinn’s article in this newspaper, “Proposals for online charter schools still on public comment” reminded readers they had less than a week to comment on West Virginia’s online charter schools, which were already decided by the Legislature. Some online charter schools may be good, but those that are private and profit-based often have shady records and more negatives than positives.
The pandemic has taught our nation much, including the importance of schooling for youths. This past year, parents, teachers and children learned that online learning is a poor substitute for in-person classes. Ironically, West Virginia, a state ranked at the bottom in terms of education successes, is now ready to push online schools, which the pandemic proved detrimental for most kids.
As a recent editorial in this newspaper noted, policy changes approved by the West Virginia Board of Education will “allow for fully online charter schools, enable an unelected board to circumvent county boards of education to open charters and open the door to 10 new charters every three years.” By 2030, West Virginia could have 30 new online schools, all supported by public monies with no public input required.
Charter schools may offer advantages for some students, but they provide more advantages, especially financial, for those who own or manage them. Additional advantages for those running online charter schools include few bureaucratic rules, low staff salaries, no unions and curriculum taught as private groups prefer. Two other advantages of online schools are significant disadvantages to public ones, as private charter schools divert funding from public schools and can pick and choose their pupils, leaving out those with learning difficulties.
A superb example of what’s wrong with private online charter schools was demonstrated by Ohio’s Electronic Classroom of Tomorrow (ECOT), which was started by William Lager in 2000. Lager’s company, Altair Learning Management, entered an agreement with an Ohio county educational service center. Lager is reported to have spent over $1 million on Ohio political campaigns from 2010-15. By 2016, the Ohio Department of Education determined that ECOT needed to reimburse the state $80 million because it had been paid for more students than it served. In 2018, the school closed down midyear, leaving many students in the lurch. The case is still in the courts.
This year, Cabell County Schools will offer an online program through its Cabell Virtual Learning Academy that includes structured programs, certified teachers and grades for students from kindergarten through high school. This program appears targeted toward homeschooled students and those who prefer virtual learning. This not-for-profit program is under the jurisdiction of the Cabell County Board of Education and, therefore, free of the conflicts of interest common to private and charter online schools. It appears to be a well-thought-out program.
Most parents and kids are delighted for students to return to brick-and-mortar schools. A small number may benefit from virtual education, but private charter online for-profit schools aren’t the panacea some wish they were and, as in other states, West Virginia’s are likely to have more negatives than positives.