Online charter schools continue to struggle, state reviews show

Academic achievement continues to lag at the state’s online charter schools, including one that is the biggest public school in the state.

Reports from the Georgia Department of Audits and Accounts show both Georgia Cyber Academy, the biggest, and Georgia Connections Academy underperformed on the state schools report card, the College and Career Ready Performance Index. The annual audits are mandated by state law.

“Georgia Cyber Academy’s College and Career Ready Performance Index (CCRPI) scores were below the state average for the elementary, middle, and high schools, with elementary and high school scores approximately 20 points below the state average,” says one of the reports, published in late December by the Performance Audit Division. The CCRPI is a 100-point scale, and the Cyber Academy underperformed in all components at the elementary and high school levels. Middle school performance was similarly low, except in a category called “readiness.”

Georgia Connections Academy's scores were "slightly" below the state average in all grade bands, though English language arts was a bright spot.

The Cyber Academy’s leader notes the audit used older data and says there have been changes at the school since then. It had about 14,000 students last school year, and around 11,000 last fall. Its enrollment was demographically similar to state enrollment as a whole last school year except for a smaller percentage of English language learners and a larger percentage from economically disadvantaged households.

Connections Academy is much smaller, with 4,000 students who are generally better off economically.

Charter schools are privately operated with public dollars and are are free from many of the state and local rules that cover traditional public schools. They are open to all residents within their attendance zone.

Both these schools’ attendance zones are statewide, and both are a popular option in metro Atlanta, according to maps included with the audits.

Online schooling advocates and a former leader of the Cyber Academy have argued that virtual schools should be held to a different, lower, standard because their students tend to be more transient. The median “mobility” rate — the proportion of students transferring between schools — is 16 percent in Georgia. It was twice that high at Cyber Academy and even higher, 41 percent, at Connections. The State Charter Schools Commission, which granted both schools their operating charters, has said the same state performance measures should apply to all schools.

Michael Kooi, executive director of the Cyber Academy, said the audit used 2016-17 school year performance data and a new executive team has made “significant” changes to address the performance.

“These changes include, but are not limited to, working with the State Charter Schools Commission, as well as our parents, to better address the quality and appropriateness of a virtual setting for our students,” he said in an email. This should address concerns about the academic performance, he added.

The school earned a "D" from the Governor's Office of Student Achievement for the 2016-17 school year. The score did not change for 2017-18. Connections earned the same score for 2016-17, but improved to a "C" for the last school year.

Why it matters to you

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 indpendently. Georgia Cyber Academy pays K12 Inc., a national for-profit corporation, for operational support.