Sunday, July 28, 2013

Response to aggressive cyber school marketing

Two days ago we blogged about the evidence we saw of radical expansion of K-12 cyber schools, and aggressive marketing by for-profit charters, particularly K12 Inc. Online schools rapidly expanding, spending tax dollars on marketing, Okemos Parents for Schools, July 26, 2013.  Response was overwhelming that other folks across Michigan are seeing what we are ... and more.

The Network for Public Education linked to the post.  Save Michigan's Public Schools shared our post on Facebook and their post got 34 comments.  See their post here. Some of the comments discussed the marketing they from for-profit cyber schools:
  • "Every other radio ad in the Lansing market is for enrollment in online schools."
  • "I have seen road side signs. When I see advertisements on FB for online schools I mark it as spam."
  • "I've seen the signs and have actually gotten a letter explaining all the benefits of online schools (with TESTIMONIALS from parents). Whatever."
  • "They are out on the roads AND on TV! I have seen commercials for them! Arg!"
  • "They are even paying for ads on apps like Words with Friends for charter and virtual schools. It is disgusting!"
  • "Saw one sign on US 23 going to Alpena. At least it was only one lonely sign."
  • "Saw this sign today on the corner of M-52 and Grand River between Webberville & Williamston. Made me very angry!!"
  • "I see the signs all the time and hear advertisements on the radio. What parent in their right mind would pull their child out of school to learn on a computer?"
  • "Lot's of radio ads."
  • "They have at least three of them along North Avenue in St. Clair County in a 10 mile stretch."
  • "Signs in Oscoda, MI"
  • "yes in Rochester _ Oakland Twp and getting e mails from them"
  • "I've seen them lots the past spring. Plus the radio ads are endless"
Some of the comments expressed concern about the idea of cyber schools:
  • "One of the commercials for K-12 online learning, touts that it is great to get a public school education, "without the public school!" Your child won't have the distraction of "other students" like in a classroom setting. It all makes me so disgusted, as if in the our world we don't need to be able to learn to live with "other people." I simply can't imagine placing more value on making money than doing what is really good for our youth. It is sad."
  • "Parents aren't following through on their children completing homework, reading, or studying so what makes them think they will get them to focus on computer based instruction."
  • "How is this good for kids?

    Do virtual schools build community? Social relationships? Interpersonal skills? A sense of creativity and critical thinking?

    Cyber school enterprises have a track record of low passing rates, high dropout rates (often the c
    yber school keeps the tax dollars even when a student drops).

    And a very high profit margin."
  • "I see the signs all the time and hear advertisements on the radio. What parent in their right mind would pull their child out of school to learn on a computer?"
One of the commenters on our blog defended the idea of quality homeschooling, something which we do not oppose, and expressed her view that K12 Inc. was not providing a quality education.  She said, in part, "I'll be sure never to recommend K12 though now that I know some of these things."

One commenter on the Save Michigan's Public Schools Facebook post made the point that these aggressive marketing campaigns are paid for with public funds meant for educating kids:
  • "This is our kids education money being spent on this craziness. Stand up parents before its too late."
Gubernatorial candidate Mark Schauer's communication director, Zack Pohl, shared a photo of an online ad and expressed a similar concern:
Mr. Pohl also shared our post. 

We don't know how much tax money is being spent on advertising cyber schools.  We found a link to a story about New York charters spending $1.6 million on marketing. Charter schools spending up to $1.6 million on marketing,, August 9, 2011.  However much money it is, it's clearly a lot. 

Friday, July 26, 2013

Online schools rapidly expanding, spending tax dollars on marketing

Gov. Snyder has made radical expansion of online education for K-12 students a centerpiece of his education policy.  Among some there is a sense that online education is meant to fill a niche that conventional public skills aren't filling.  That isn't what it's being used for.

In our discussions with folks at PTO meetings and in the community, people understandably ask if there isn't a limited place for online education.  Certainly, there is.  Before any of the recent radical expansions of online education were enacted, the community of education professionals in Michigan had already taken care of this.  New budget's disinvestment in K-12 goes beyond vouchers, Okemos Parents for Schools, April 17, 2013. Nonetheless, the Legislature and Gov. Snyder moved forward with radical expansion of practically unregulated online education paid for with public funds.  K-12 Budget Fails to Invest, Includes "Vouchers for Vendors", Okemos Parents for Schools, May 30, 2013.  Now we are seeing rapid expansion of online education across the state.  The photo of this roadside advertisement for "Virtual Public School" was posted on Facebook in June, but we have seen more of these signs around the state recently.

The "Virtual Learning Center" pictured here is being operated out of a gas station complex.  Vestaburg schools is operating this school for select kids.  According to the May minutes of the Vestaburg Board of Education Meeting, the school will ". . . only accept kids that are referred to them from Vestaburg’s administration.  Students that have already dropped out . . . ."

A recent Facebook discussion pointed out that kids seemingly won't have to ever set foot in the gas station school, since it's a "Virtual Learning Center."  However, the fact that kids never go to school may not be a great argument that it's okay to locate schools in gas stations.  You can read the minutes of the May meeting here

Additionally, K12 Inc. is sending out slick glossy mailers.  These mailers don't seem to be targeted to some special niche, sense the parents who received this one are very happy with Okemos Public Schools.  The mailer says "... the state of Michigan is offering free, full-time online public schooling, available to families like yours through K12."  The mailer emphasizes "... this program is free, paid for with your tax dollars just like other public schools."  Of course, the mailer is also paid for with tax dollars.  The mailer includes a link to a quiz which helps you decide if online only schooling is right for your child.  The quiz asks:
1. Is your child happy in school?
2. Does your child have any special needs?
3. Could your child benefit from a more flexible, self-paced schedule?
4. Does your child have social issues, or are you concerned about issues like bullying?
5. Do you want to play a more active role in your child's education?
We took the quiz.  Unsurprisingly, if you say your child is unhappy in school and would like a more self-paced schedule, this tool concludes online only education is right for him.  But look at the results from these answers:
1. Is your child happy in school? Yes, my child is happy, academically and socially.
2. Does your child have any special needs? My child has a learning disability and/or struggles to keep up.
3. Could your child benefit from a more flexible, self-paced schedule? No, my child needs someone to provide structure.
4. Does your child have social issues, or are you concerned about issues like bullying? No, my child has no social or peer-related issues.
5. Do you want to play a more active role in your child's education? No, and I don’t have the time to commit.
Based on your responses, K12 is an excellent option for your and your child.
    • Children already doing well in traditional school settings love K12. Offering a true community, with online and offline learning and social activities, K12 goes far beyond brick-and-mortar schools.
    • Perfectly suited for children with learning challenges, K12 allows you to set the pace, going slower through lessons as needed.
    • Our curriculum is developed by a team of educators, leveraging the latest research. Even when you can’t facilitate the lessons, K12 has the structure to let your child progress.
So, a special needs child who is happy in school, and who needs structure but with parents unwilling to provide it is encouraged to sign up for online only school.

Never mind that K12 Inc. has been plagued with scandal.  A New York Times story about K12 Inc. showed:
  • "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."
  • "Current and former staff members of K12 Inc. schools say problems begin with intense recruitment efforts that fail to filter out students who are not suited for the program, which requires strong parental commitment and self-motivated students."
  • "Some teachers at K12 schools said they felt pressured to pass students who did little work. Teachers have also questioned why some students who did no class work were allowed to remain on school rosters, potentially allowing the company to continue receiving public money for them."
  • "State auditors found that the K12-run Colorado Virtual Academy counted about 120 students for state reimbursement whose enrollment could not be verified or who did not meet Colorado residency requirements. Some had never logged in." New York Times, Profits and Questions at Online Charter Schools, December 12, 2011
We wrote much more about K12 Inc. previously.  Education Budgets Moving - Vouchers and Disinvestment, Okemos Parents for Schools, April 24, 2013.

This at the same time Chicago Public Schools are replacing art and gym teachers with virtual teachers.  Yes, online gym classes:
School officials say all online courses are taught by a state-certified “virtual teacher.” Art students email or scan their work to teachers. Gym students have a mentor who works with them as they complete a fitness log.  [Amid Job Cuts, CPS Looking At Moving Gym, Music, Art Classes Online, CBS Chicago, July 25, 2013]
Is this where Michigan is going?

Thursday, July 25, 2013

Detroit daily papers take aim at disinvestment in K-12

A recent editorial from the Detroit Free Press and Op-Ed in the Detroit News continue to make the points that Michigan's elected leadership is not adequately funding K-12 education, and any claim to having increased funding to K-12 education is disingenuous at best.

The Detroit Free Press discussed the impending dissolution of the Saginaw Buena Vista and Inkster school districts:
But this is no way to run a railroad — and it’s an embarrassing, slapdash way to manage a huge fiscal crisis in education.
What on earth has Michigan sunk to? Slashing public education to the extent we have, allowing districts to stumble into huge financial holes, then simply dissolving them as a “solution” to the problem. This is the kind of abdication and neglect we used to ridicule in other states; now, we’re the butt of the jokes.
Think about the chaos the dissolution of Buena Vista and Inkster will wreak in the coming weeks. Students and parents will not just lose a school district; they’ll see their schools closed, something that wouldn’t necessarily happen under a plan to consolidate school districts in an orderly way.
And how will kids in those communities get to the new districts that are expected to take them? The logistics alone are nightmarish to contemplate.
The law that allows for “emergency” district closures is simply management by crisis, a half-baked approach to a problem that requires a fully cooked set of ideas.
For Gov. Rick Snyder, this goes part and parcel with his approach to failing cities. Rather than engage in a big-picture re-think about how the state funds and maintains local government (or, perhaps, how much local government we are willing to pay for anymore) he is content to manage from one barn-burner to the next, extinguishing the flames, but never dealing with the accelerant that’s fueling the fires.
That’s not going to work long term. Buena Vista and Inkster’s school districts may be gone, but the residue of the problem they represent persists, and will spread to other districts in time.
If Snyder continues to manage through incremental crisis-related steps, the Michigan recovery he imagines won’t materialize for anyone. [Editorial: Closing Buena Vista, Inkster school districts is no surprise - and no solution, The Detroit Free Press, July 23, 2013.]
 An Op-Ed in the Detroit News directly addressed the drastic cuts to K-12 funding which as created crises such as Saginaw Buena Vista and Inkster:
Shortly after taking office, one of Snyder’s bold initiatives to “reinvent Michigan” was to cut over $1 billion from the education budget. That $1 billion cut in school funding helped pay for his other big idea: a $1.8 billion tax cut for corporate special interests. Cut the “fat” out of the budget for our schools and cut corporate taxes to spur economic growth and create jobs.
As a result of the education funding cuts, approximately one in five districts across the state is facing serious financial hardships, resulting in increased class sizes, elimination of programs and teacher layoffs. And those are the lucky ones. In just the last school year alone, we saw one district close for two weeks, several that faced payless paydays, one that simply could not pay the health care premiums for their employees and another that announced they would not open their high school next year.
The $1 billion cut in education funding Snyder pushed through in his first year in office has certainly yield results — but all of them bad.
That reduction in education funding equated to an average of $470 per pupil or $2.61 per pupil per day. In an attempt to reinvent his record on education funding, the governor’s campaign now touts the thirty-five cents-per-pupil, per-day increase in the 2012-13 education budget and the thirty-three cents-per-pupil increase in the 2013-14 budget. At that rate, it will be 2021 before education funding will return to the level it was when he took office.
A few small increases in education funding do not begin to fill the hole he created in the first place. And it will certainly not stem the tide of financial crises gripping more and more school districts across the state.
However, it will allow Snyder’s campaign to run ads saying he has “increased” education funding.
The governor’s plan to reinvent Michigan through education funding cuts and corporate tax cuts has resulted in six tenths of one percent reduction in unemployment and financial disaster for school districts across the state.
The voters may not see that as a fair trade. [Gov. Snyder's fuzzy math on school funding, The Detroit News, July 24, 2013.]

Sunday, July 14, 2013

State Superintendent proposes dissolving all Michigan school districts

State Superintendent Mike Flanagan has urged that Michigan's individual school districts be dissolved, and schools be managed the county level.  A house subcommittee will hold a public hearing on the proposal July 31.
With a record number of school districts sinking into a deficit, and two districts possibly on their way to being dissolved, state Superintendent Mike Flanagan is urging drastic action — such as converting Michigan’s nearly 550 districts, 56 intermediate districts and nearly 280 charter schools into countywide school districts.
If that can’t be done right away, he said, the state should give more power to intermediate school districts so operations such as transportation and food services can be consolidated.
Flanagan predicted that countywide districts or his hybrid option could save millions — money he said could be used to teach students. But little, if any, research supports his position, a fact that’s drawing concern from educators and others. [As schools slide into the red, could it be time for countywide districts? Detroit Free Press, July 7, 2013 (emphasis added).] 
Don Wotruba, deputy director of the Michigan Association of School Boards, told the Free Press he was skeptical of a one-size-fits-all proposal such as this. 
What Flanagan is suggesting could take Michigan in one of two directions:
■ The state could eliminate its local school districts and organize schools by county — there are 83 counties in the state — or by intermediate school district. So a county such as Oakland, with 28 individual school districts and 28 individual superintendents, would become one district with one superintendent and 180,274 students.
■ A hybrid option would place more power with the state’s intermediate school districts by transferring all non-instructional services — such as transportation, business and food service — to the ISDs. Local school districts would focus solely on instruction. The ISDs, for instance, would handle transportation for the entire county, rather than each district having a transportation department. Eventually, some instructional services would be handled at the county level, too, Flanagan said.
Marcus Napthen, an English teacher at Belleville High School, said he doesn’t think countywide districts are the way to go, but he’s open to the idea of consolidating certain services — such as transportation — at the county level.
But instead of a state mandate, he said, counties should be allowed to determine how they can best share services so districts can maintain local control.
“The school is the center of the community,” Napthen said. [Id.]
The Free Press article also notes research which would counsel against mass consolidation.  The research affirms that consolidating small districts would create efficiencies and save money.  However, consolidating already large districts into even larger districts would make them costlier to run.

There is anecdotal evidence that case-by-case consolidation probably makes sense for some districts.  Ypsilanti and Willow Run both had lost students and were operating under deficits.  This summer they are consolidating and hope to expand offerings and balance the books of the combined district.  In the case of Ypsilanti and Willow Run, local voters made the choice to consolidate, rather then have the decision made at the state level.  With Ypsilanti and Willow Run school districts merger, longer days and longer calendar will be the formula to revive fortunes., July 12, 2013.

Schools in Meridian Township are already working together to share costs and create efficiencies while still maintaining individual identities and local control:
[Superintendent of the Ingham Intermediate District Stan] Kogut said Okemos Public Schools is coordinating foods services for several county school districts and Haslett Public Schools is providing business and technology services for the Williamston Community Schools.
But some mid-Michigan school experts caution there are downsides with centralizing services, including busing. Tom Goodwin, a former Grand Ledge assistant superintendent and now an education consultant, said merging school bus garages on a countywide basis could mean some buses would be driven longer distances as they go from one end of the county to the other. In addition to higher mileage, there may be higher costs for maintenance. [Amid schools debate, area schools are already pooling resources, Lansing State Journal, July 9, 2013.] 

Monday, July 1, 2013

Michigan does not track class sizes - should it?

A recent editorial in Bridge Magazine made the case that Michigan should be tracking class sizes in our schools. 

No.  The state doesn't already track class size.
Are there more kids packed into classrooms today than a decade ago? We have no idea.
Do students in smaller-than-average classrooms do better academically? How about kids in larger than average? We got nothin’.
The Michigan Department of Education is the Fort Knox of data. With just a few clicks, we can tell the number of children of migrant workers who graduated on-time from high school in 2011-12 (41); we can identify the percentage of Hispanic students from Mason High School in 2007-08 who enrolled in community colleges within 16 months of graduation (67 percent); we can even state unequivocally how many Ewen-Trout Creek Consolidated Schools students enrolled in Watersmeet Township classes last year through school choice (2).
But Michigan does not keep tabs on the number of students in your child’s classroom. [Bridge Magazine editorial: Isn't class size in our schools important enough to track?, Bridge Magazine, June 23, 2013]
The editorial acknowledges that some believe class size is unimportant.  However, the editorial also notes the very recent statewide study by the Center for Michigan in which 71 percent of Michigan residents polled supported reducing class sizes.