“Virtual schooling is increasingly a necessary option,” said Michael O’Sullivan, the Georgia leader of 50CAN, an organization that supports school choice.
The problem presented by Georgia Cyber Academy is twofold: For years, it has struggled with academic achievement. Last year, it earned zero out of a possible 100 points in the academic part of the State Charter Schools Commission's scoring system. That's down from one point in each of the preceding three years. The scores are based mostly on state standardized test results. The 2019 test results, due later this year, will inform the charter renewal decision.
Georgia Cyber Academy’s performance is also important for taxpayers: The state and federal governments sent about $90 million in public education funds to the school this past year. Charter schools are public schools that operate independently, governed by boards that do not answer to voters, but they must outperform other public schools. Georgia Cyber Academy has existed for at least a decade, operating with statewide authority from the State Charter Schools Commission since the agency’s inception in 2013.
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Recognizing the risk of closure, Georgia Cyber Academy’s board last year started to pull control away from K12 Inc., the corporation that had been managing it.
“We were dissatisfied with the results,” said Angela Lassetter, a former member of the school’s board.
The board removed teachers and administrators from K12’s payroll, and made Lassetter the school’s new leader.
Lassetter and her staff tried different curricula. Internal testing showed some of it outperformed K12 curricula, so the school board decided to go with new vendors for the coming school year. The change saved the school $18 million, according to school board documents obtained through the Georgia Open Records Act. School documents indicate preliminary test scores rose this past school year. The Georgia Department of Education is expected to release the final test results by the fall.
K12 says that, despite its diminished role at the school, it deserves some credit for the rising scores. A K12 spokesman declined to comment, but the company provided documents that address the issue.
The documents say K12 and Georgia Cyber Academy are in a dispute that is under arbitration, limiting what each side can say about the other. Since only small curriculum changes occurred last fall and the full overhaul won’t take effect until the coming school year, they say any improvements so far “can be directly attributable to the continued usage of K12 curriculum” and to other “proven best practices” and “support,” implemented by the company, such as coaching sessions for teachers.
Online charter schools have faced headwinds since 2016, when a coalition of charter school advocacy groups produced a blistering report, condemning the sector for "well-documented, disturbingly low performance" and calling on states to crack down.
Things have improved somewhat since then, said Michael J. Petrilli, president of the Thomas B. Fordham Institute, a conservative-leaning organization that advocates for school choice. “We have seen some of the worst offending schools close,” he said. “But I think it’s fair to say that there are still plenty of low-performing virtual charter schools out there.”
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It is unfortunate because these schools can be a “lifeline” for kids in crisis, he said. However, some of these schools “have signed up families that are not in a good position to make this work.” Charter schools, like traditional public schools, must accept any student for whom there is a spot. Yet experience has shown that certain students — those who aren’t driven or who lack a watchful eye at home — fare poorly, he said.
Ben Brumfield, the longest-serving current Georgia Cyber Academy board member, said it was clear the test scores were a problem. The board hired Lassetter, he said, because “we wanted to go into full throttle change.” Some parents were concerned by her decisions, such as the new curricula and a policy to hold back failing students, but he said the criticism seems to have abated.
In a school with 10,000 students, there is certain to be a variety of opinions. But parents who attended a State Charter Schools Commission hearing in January to encourage a one-year extension of the school's charter (the commission granted it, so the school will continue to operate at least until the summer of 2020) were still enthusiastic when reached in June, after some of the changes had been made.
Anne Johnson of Lawrenceville said her son, 8, is thriving at Georgia Cyber Academy. She was dissatisfied with the local public school in Gwinnett County. The teachers seemed too distracted by misbehaving students, she said. So two years ago, she gave the online school a try.
“He’s grown so very much,” she said. “They did everything I had expected.”
She thinks parents have gotten more involved since Lassetter took over and that teachers are more engaged.
As in Johnson’s case, Deirdre Parker’s local school in Henry County seemed overwhelmed with disciplinary issues. That’s why she sent two daughters to Georgia Cyber Academy. The older one graduated several years ago. The younger one, now 17, started in 2016. Parker expects her to graduate from the school, too. She hasn’t been bothered by the change in leadership.
“Everything is still fine,” Parker said. “We’re still very satisfied with the school.”
WHAT’S NEXT FOR K12?
K12 has found another business opportunity beyond Georgia Cyber Academy. In late June, the company sent several executives to Atlanta to help members of a proposed online school’s board submit a new charter petition.
Destinations Career Academy is a career-focused concept for kindergarten through high school. It would initially enroll 1,600 students in the fall of 2020, growing to 8,000 four years later. That would equate to $10 million under the state education funding formula in the first year, growing to $50 million in year five, according to the commission, with K12 paid more than a third of that.
The National Association of Charter School Authorizers was part of the coalition that published the damning 2016 report on virtual charter schools. Greg Richmond, the group’s president and CEO, said K12 has been a dominant force in the sector. “The performance of the industry has not really changed,” he said. “Maybe with this new twist — the career academies — it will get better.”
WHY IT MATTERS
Online charter schools can enroll more students than individual physical schools because of the distributed nature of virtual learning. So the performance of one school can reflect, and affect, thousands of students. Also, dollars from Georgia taxpayers flow to these schools, which operate independently.