Nearly 60 percent of its students are behind grade level in math. Nearly 50 percent trail in reading. A third do not graduate on time. And hundreds of children, from kindergartners to seniors, withdraw within months after they enroll.
By Wall Street standards, though, Agora is a remarkable success that has helped enrich K12 Inc., the publicly traded company that manages the school. And the entire enterprise is paid for by taxpayers.
Now, we've long been test score critics at OE. So I will accept the argument that test scores should not necessarily be the most important feature of a school. But if they are the motivation for shifting to private education then I'd at least like to see reasonable scores (after all, this is the reason for the existence of these options).
Nor is the fact that the schools are focusing on aggressive expansion reassuring:
Despite lower operating costs, the online companies collect nearly as much taxpayer money in some states as brick-and-mortar charter schools. In Pennsylvania, about 30,000 students are enrolled in online schools at an average cost of about $10,000 per student. The state auditor general, Jack Wagner, said that is double or more what it costs the companies to educate those children online.
“It’s extremely unfair for the taxpayer to be paying for additional expenses, such as advertising,” Mr. Wagner said. Much of the public money also goes toward lobbying state officials, an activity that Ronald J. Packard, chief executive of K12, has called a “core competency” of the company.
I think that it is concerning that a core competency of a large (and growing) private school is that it focuses on lobbying governments for money. If the main issue that we have with traditional public education is rent-seeking by teachers, how much worse is rent seeking by a corporation? After all, if teachers gain a small surplus per teacher that at least has a broad social impact. Clearly K12 has managed to avoid expensive teachers:
But online schools have negligible building costs and cheaper labor costs, partly because they pay teachers low wages, records and interviews show. Parents, called “learning coaches,” do much of the teaching, prompting critics to argue that states are essentially subsidizing home schooling.
At what point is the school simply letting the parent home school their children and accepting educational grant money for the purpose? This is a model that, I suspect, has a chance if and only if you have a stay at home parent that focuses on working with the child on education (or if sleep is an activity that you engage in only on weekends).
Now, I do not want to be a luddite. There may be a role for online education and this particular NY Times piece may not capture all of the nuances of K12 (the articles about traditional schools often has this issue as well). But this sort of business model has long been one of my major concerns about the push towards privatization of schools.
Smart comments from Matt Yglesias and Dana Goldstein are also worth reading.