the future of advocacy

For Betsy DeVos and her former advocacy group, the future of education means ‘personalization,’ including virtual schools

PHOTO: Laura Faith Kebede

When Betsy DeVos returned to the advocacy group she used to lead last week, she told attendees to push for systems where students could attend any kind of school.

Traditional, charter, religious, and virtual schools should be options for students, the education secretary argued, as should “an educational setting yet to be developed.”

“Our current framework is a closed system that relies on one-size-fits-all solutions,” DeVos said. “We need an open system that envelops choices and embraces the future.”

This vision was clear throughout the American Federation for Children summit: that schools need to be reinvented with an emphasis on technology. And throughout the gathering, exclusively online schools were a key part of that vision — even though some supporters acknowledge existing virtual schools have not produced strong academic outcomes to date.

Advocates say that online schools have the potential to harness “personalized learning,” a term that generally means using technology to provide an education tailored to each student’s needs.

“The end game … is personalized learning,” said Kevin Chavous, a board member and executive counsel at AFC, in response to a question about virtual schools. “We are going to get to this place where as opposed to every child being shepherded into a schoolhouse where they sit in a classroom and where a teacher stands and delivers, and then they regurgitate back … those days are not going to be the future.”

This belief in personalized learning dovetails with the focus at another recent conference of education reformers, the New Schools Venture Fund summit. But AFC’s emphasis on exclusively virtual schools appears distinct, and comes as online charter schools have endured a wave of negative press and research studies.

In addition to advocating for school vouchers, DeVos has also long backed virtual schools, a small but swiftly growing sector of schools.

For-profit virtual school companies are tightly connected to AFC. The two largest such groups, K12 and Connections Academy, were among the chief sponsors of the conference. Chavous is K12 board member, and John Kirtley of AFC praised the company, saying, “They’re doing great things in digital learning.”

And although the research evidence for blended or personalized learning models is mixed, the handful of studies of fully virtual schools point to a clearer verdict: students in such schools perform dramatically worse on standardized tests relative to similar students in traditional schools, according to a study of thousands of virtual charter school students in 18 states.

Advocates acknowledged that the research to date has shown that cyber-charter schools have produced dismal test score results, but said that they are good fits for some students and are improving over time.

Chavous did not dispute the negative research findings, but suggested that students who remained in virtual schools for several years saw academic gains. (The widely cited national study of online charter schools did not examine this question, but did show that about 75 percent of students had left their online school within four years.)

K12 as an organization has challenged the recent research, saying it does not sufficiently control for differences between students in virtual schools and those in brick and mortar ones, a point some outside researchers say is a real limitation of existing studies.

Robert Enlow of the group EdChoice described the research on virtual schools as “not great, at the moment,” but pointed out that studies rely on test scores, a limited measure in his view. (EdChoice is a funder of Chalkbeat.) Enlow said that he had seen evidence that online schools could improve life outcomes for students in a presentation from K12.

The results from research and negative press have led some charter school advocacy groups to argue for stricter regulation of online charter schools. EdChoice and AFC did not join this push and K12 rejected the recommendations out of hand.

“The device of making a school virtual — I think we need to preserve the tool,” said Derrell Bradford of the 50-state Campaign for Achievement Now, or 50CAN, which was part of the statement calling for tighter oversight. “At some point, someone’s going to figure out a way to do virtual well.”

Graph from the National Education Policy Center.

rebuffed

Charter school proposals rejected by Memphis officials — for now

PHOTO: Alan Petersime

Shelby County’s school board sent 13 groups back to the drawing board Tuesday after denying their initial bid to open or expand charter schools in Memphis in 2018.

The unanimous vote followed the recommendations of district staff, who raised concerns about the applications ranging from unclear academic plans to missing budget documents to a lack of research-based evidence backing up their work.

Applicants now have 30 days to amend and re-submit their plans for a final board vote during a special meeting August 22. Memphis Academy of Health Sciences rescinded its application to expand grades last week.

Since 2003, Shelby County Schools has grown its charter sector to 45 schools, making the district Tennessee’s largest charter authorizer.

Nationally, the rate of charter school growth is at a four-year low, in part because of a shrinking applicant pool, according to a recent report from the National Association of Charter School Authorizers. But Memphis is bucking the trend with a slight increase in applicants this year.

District leaders frequently deny charter applications initially, but it’s unusual to turn down all of them at once.

New to this year’s application process was five consultants from NACSA, which has worked closely with Shelby County Schools to bolster its oversight of the sector.

back to the future

Colorado Supreme Court ordered to reconsider Douglas County school voucher case

Douglas County parents protest the district's voucher program in 2010 (Denver Post photo)

The Colorado Supreme Court must reconsider its ruling against a private school voucher system created by the Douglas County School District, the U.S. Supreme Court ordered Tuesday.

The edict comes a day after the nation’s highest court issued a ruling on a case that touched on similar issues.

At issue is whether Douglas County parents can use tax dollars to send their students to private schools, including religious schools. The Colorado Supreme Court said in 2015 the program violated the state’s constitution.

What connects the Douglas County voucher debate to the just-decided Trinity Lutheran v. Comer case from Missouri is that both states have so-called Blaine Amendments. Such provisions prohibit state tax dollars from aiding religious practices. Nearly 40 states have similar language.

The U.S. Supreme Court ruled Monday that the state of Missouri violated the U.S. Constitution by prohibiting Trinity Lutheran’s church-run preschool from participating in a state program that repaved playgrounds. The court found that the state must allow churches to participate in state programs when the benefit meets a secular need.

That distinction likely will be the question the Colorado Supreme Court wrestles with when it takes up the issue again.

“The Supreme Court in Trinity Lutheran expressly noted that its opinion does not address religious uses of government funding,” Mark Silverstein, the ACLU of Colorado’s legal director, said in a statement. The ACLU was one of the organizations challenging the voucher program.

“Using public money to teach religious doctrine to primary and secondary students is substantially different than using public money to resurface a playground,” Silverstein said.

The school district said it was encouraged by the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision.

“We look forward to the Colorado Supreme Court’s second review and decision on this important matter,” William Trachman, the district’s legal counsel, said in a statement. “As always, the Douglas County School District is dedicated to empowering parents to find the best educational options for their children.”

It’s unclear when the Colorado Supreme Court will take up the Douglas County case. The court has three options: It may revise its earlier opinion, request new arguments from both sides or ask a lower court to reconsider the case.

Given the national implications, it’s unlikely the Colorado justices will have the final say — especially if they again conclude the voucher program violates the state’s constitution. The question could end up being decided by the U.S. Supreme Court.

The Douglas County School District launched its voucher program in 2011 after a conservative majority took control of the school board. The district was prepared to hand out more than 300 vouchers to families before a Denver District Court judge blocked the program from starting.