What President-elect Donald Trump and the Republican sweep of government will mean for K-12 education priorities over the next four years is not entirely clear yet. However, policy statements and administration selections so far indicate “school choice” will top the agenda.
Betsy DeVos, Trump’s nominee for education secretary, has been known to be an advocate of school choice initiatives: DeVos has supported voucher programs that allow families to use taxpayer money to enroll in private and religious schools. She also promoted charter school legislation that offers students choices outside of traditional public schools.
Vice President-elect Mike Pence also has a history as governor of Indiana of promoting school choice policy. Indiana not only is ranked as having the most favorable policy provisions for charter schools by a prominent charter schooling advocacy group, but it is among the 25 states employing a type of charter school unfamiliar to many folks across the United States: the cyber charter school.
Unlike the usual charter school, the cyber version is typically delivered to students online wherever they may live, so long as they are residents of the state in which the cyber charter school operates. Cyber charter schools have been growing in states that have school choice policy.
Our research, along with a body of academic work, suggests that the public should be concerned about an expansion of the cyber charter schooling model.
What is a cyber charter school?
Charter schools are privately managed K-12 schools that utilize public money. The funds for charter schools are removed from regular public schooling budgets and paid to various private firms and organizations (and sometimes other parts of a state’s education system) to provide a wider choice of schools.
In the cyber version of the charter school, instruction is typically delivered to the students online wherever they may live, so long as they are residents of the state in which the cyber charter school operates. The model of these schools could vary—some use a hybrid delivery model (online and in person), although most are entirely online. Students receive course material, lessons and tests on their computer at home (usually the computer is also provided with state funds).
As with traditional charter schools, the general idea behind cyber charter schools is to allow families and students to have a choice other than their local public school.
A 2015 annual report prepared by a consulting group that tracks online school practice and is often cited by scholars to describe cyber charter school enrollment shows that in 2014-15 there were 275,000 students in cyber charter schools across 25 states. In some states, tens of thousands of students enroll in cyber charter schools. In Pennsylvania, for example, more than 36,000 students enrolled in cyber charter schools during 2014-2015.
Where do the students come from?
One of the goals of recent scholarship has been to understand who are the students who enroll in these schools and why do they do so.