Why Pay Online Schools to Recruit?
If you have any life experience at all, you may recall a few ideas or behaviors that were once completely acceptable but today are considered foolish, harmful, or just plain wrong. Forcing left-handed kids to write with their right hand, for example. Separate classrooms for kids with special needs. Segregation. Smoking. Tanning. Unprotected sex. The Bachleor.
Today when we look back, we shake our heads and ask ourselves, “What were we thinking?”
On occasion I amuse myself by trying to guess what behaviors or ideas current today will fall into that “what were we thinking” category in the future. For example, I’m pretty sure that today’s testing mania will qualify (“Pearson got how much for making up tests?”). Using test scores to evaluate teachers could qualify for WWWT too (“Really? 50% of a teacher’s evaluation was test scores?”) And it’s very possible that funding for K-12 online charter schools may get a WWWT nod as well.
Don’t get me wrong – I think online courses are a great alternate way for kids to learn. They are cost efficient, they expand the curriculum, and they help kids become independent learners. For some high school kids who have been, for whatever reason, unsuccessful in the traditional public school, online courses may be a practical alternative to suspension or dismissal.
That said, online schools cannot take the place of public schools, the backbone of an educated democracy. First of all, not all kids have the self-discipline or the adult guidance to work independently. Secondly, online schools remain, for the most part, unregulated, and the quality varies tremendously. Thirdly, general results from online schools are not better than those of public schools. Finally, an important part of traditional schooling is the social, cultural, and civic education that helps children become integrated and productive citizens in society.
Today full-time online students number about 275,000 according to the Evergreen Education Group, a Colorado consulting firm. That number is growing, a result at least in part of aggressive ad campaigns by for-profit online schools. USA Today reports that 10 of the largest for-profit online schools have spent about $94.4 million on ads since 2007. The largest school, K12 based in Virginia, has spent about $21.5 million in the first eight months of this year alone. In an attempt to market directly to kids, the ads appear on Nickelodeon, The Cartoon Network, MeetMe.com, and even VampireFreaks.com.
Not only are these for-profits targeting youngsters; they’re doing it with taxpayer money. K12 spokesman Jeff Kwitowski explains, “We try our best to ensure that all families know that these options exist. It’s all about parents’ choice – they’re the ones that make the decision about what school or program is the best fit for their child.”
Excuse me, Jeff, but it’s all about profit. Mattel and Fisher-Price learned long ago that marketing to kids is more successful than marketing to their parents. As a public school supporter and Virginia resident, I’d rather see that $21.5 million applied to the state’s poorest schools rather than on advertising for recruitment to online schools.
An NPR report written in conjunction with the Cleveland Plain Dealer examined the huge growth of charter schools in Ohio. The report found that online schools spend about $3600 per student. Ohio pays online charter schools about $6,300 per student. Where does the rest of the money go? The bulk of it to advertising. K12 also operates one of Ohio’s largest online schools.
What’s wrong with this picture? Without hard evidence that online schools do a better job of educating kids, we pay for them anyway. In addition, we pay for them to recruit students while we cut teachers and programs in the public schools. Frankly, we’ve been sold a bill of goods by politicians looking for a quick fix instead of focusing on the hard work of improving the public schools that most kids – especially poor kids -- attend. Really -- what were we thinking?