SID SALTER: Charter schools coming, but will virtual charters make the cut?

By Sid Salter

STARKVILLE – While the empowerment and expansion of the charter school concept in Mississippi seems a foregone political conclusion in the Mississippi Legislature, the central questions that remain are whether the House will try to limit charter schools in school districts rated “successful” and whether the House will seek to include “virtual” charter schools in the bill they send to conference with the Senate version.
The question of “virtual” charter schools – private educational institutions offering classes entirely online – have been a lightning rod during the current charter school debate. Leading the charge against virtual charter schools has been state Superintendent Tom Burnham and Parents’ Campaign executive director Nancy Loome – both of whom say virtual charters schools have poor performance records.
Drawing particular fire from Loome and others has been K12 Inc. K12 is a publicly-held Herndon, Va., firm that is the largest U.S. operator of taxpayer-funded online schools and that is part-owned by billionaire Michael Milken. Milken is best known of late as a philanthropist and financier of cutting-edge cancer and epilepsy research.
But in 1990, Milken – at that time known by the pejorative title “junk bond king” – pleaded guilty to six felony counts of securities fraud and served a one-year-and-10-month federal prison sentence. Milken’s connection to K12 Inc. has been roundly flogged during the ongoing charter school debate in this state.
So, too, has been highlighted the success of the charter KIPP School in West Helena, Ark., which has been cited by charter school advocates in both the Democratic and Republican parties in Mississippi as a model for what the charter school concept could accomplish in Mississippi compared to existing performance failures in the vast majority Clarksdale and Coahoma County public schools.
The K12 Inc. virtual charter school corporation has hired a powerful Mississippi lobbying group, Capitol Resources, and in doing so engaged Henry Barbour, the savvy nephew of former Gov. Haley Barbour, in trying to include virtual charter schools in Mississippi’s expansion of the charter school concept.
Arkansas not only has the bricks-and-mortar KIPP School, but also is in the charter school business as well. Through the Arkansas Virtual Academy, students participate in an online public school, chartered by the Arkansas Department of Education, serving students across the state in grades K-8. ARVA’s content and online services are provided by K12, Inc.
A recent University of Arkansas study is touted by ARVA supporters that they say proves that “students at online charter school outperformed comparison peers in math and literacy.” But last year, the Arkansas Board of Education denied a request to expand ARVA by tripling the state’s enrollment cap from 500 to 1,500.
One state board member openly challenged ARVA’s administrative costs, which was 15 percent of the total budget compared to an average 5 percent in traditional bricks-and-mortar public schools. Other board members – which joined together to vote 7-1 against expanding ARVA – complained that the virtual charter school’s standardized test scores were near the state average in many areas and below the state average in others. Board member Brenda Gullett of Fayetteville, Ark., told the Arkansas News Bureau: “In my mind, we don’t grant a charter so that you can be close to the state average.”
The charter school concept has sufficient political momentum to become a real and significant part of the state’s education landscape. For many failing school districts, the concept represents hope and an effort to break the status quo.
But concerns over the accountability and performance factors for virtual charter schools are well-founded and the state Senate was wise to leave that concept out of their version of charter school legislation.
Sid Salter is a syndicated columnist. Contact him at 601-507-8004 or sidsalter@sidsalter.com.