Cyber charter schools offer exclusively online instruction to students.
As their name suggests, cyber charter schools offer instruction to students entirely online. No more brick and mortar school buildings, cafeterias, or school wide assemblies, these organizations, instead, opt for a virtual model that doesn’t depend on a child’s zip code or even their ability to travel to school.
While many state laws require specific teacher-student ratios, even in virtual settings, cyber charter students conduct much of their work asynchronously, that is, on their own, allowing teachers to provide differentiated instruction on an as-needed basis, rather than as a whole group. In this sense, cyber charter schools resemble many home-schooling programs across the country that take advantage of online instructional platforms and occasional in-person gatherings (i.e., with a consortium of other homeschooled students) to create smaller, more customized learning communities.
While the laws governing these schools vary by state, they are still generally subject to the same accountability requirements as traditional public schools, and their students must still sit for state tests each year. As with traditional public schools, cyber charters are evaluated, in part, by their students’ standardized test performance.
Enrollment in cyber charter schools has surged during the pandemic.
As traditional public schools across the country shifted to remote learning last spring, families across the country were faced with a choice of whether to keep their children enrolled in their current school or explore other educational options, like cyber charter schools.
Unlike traditional public schools, cyber charters didn’t need to procure hundreds of Chromebooks, show their teachers how to use Zoom, or upload all of their instructional content to Google Drive. Remote instruction is, by definition, already built into these schools’ models.
Indeed, cyber charters in many states experienced a surge in enrollment as the pandemic swept across the country. While the academic record of cyber charter schools is mixed, their rise presents a new challenge—and opportunity—for traditional public school and in-person charter leaders. While at least some of the practices used by cyber charter schools may prove beneficial for certain students, the exodus of families from in-person schools places additional financial pressure on already cash-strapped schools.
Some families believe cyber charter schools offer more certainty than traditional public or in-person charter schools.
For some families, that cyber charters hold instruction online is less important than the fact that these schools don’t toggle between in-person and remote instruction. Rather than constantly re-organizing their lives around potential school openings and closures, families who chose to enroll their children in cyber charters point, instead, to the consistency the model offers them and their children.
This is especially true for families whose work schedules demand consistency or who believe their children benefit, more than anything, from a routine model of instruction. Regardless of their academic track record, cyber charter schools do seem to offer such certainty, allowing families to organize their lives, for now, around a set instructional mode that won’t change depending on the pandemic’s severity. Students will wake up, eat breakfast, and hop online for class, day after day.
Traditional public schools in some states have lobbied for a moratorium on cyber charter schools.
Faced with an exodus of families and looming state and local budget shortfalls, traditional public school districts have lobbied their state legislators for a moratorium on new cyber charter schools. In most states, per-pupil funding follows the child, meaning that when a student leaves a traditional public school and enrolls in a cyber charter, the former loses money.
While proponents of both in-person and cyber charter schools say that this process simply shifts money from one school to another, traditional public schools argue otherwise, claiming that facilities and personnel costs don’t always decrease with student enrollment.
Critics of cyber charter schools also point to their lackluster record of academic achievement.
Of particular concern to many cyber charter school critics are these schools’ lackluster track record of academic achievement. While there are, certainly, many cyber charters whose students perform well on certain measures of academic achievement, others have fallen short, as a recent study from Stanford’s CREDO Center found.
This isn’t to say that all cyber charters perform poorly, far from it, but rather that critics of cyber charter schools argue that the academic benefits of traditional public schools and in-person charters outweigh the arguments in favor of cyber charter school’s unique model.
For students with underlying health conditions, online schooling may, for now, offer a safer environment.
Many families who chose cyber charter schools also did so because either they or their students had underlying health conditions. While many traditional public schools that continued in-person instruction implemented robust public health measures to curb the spread of the virus within their buildings, families who chose to enroll their students in cyber charter schools feared that such measures weren’t 100% effective.
In this sense, families deciding whether to enroll their children in cyber charter schools face the same set of policy choices as district leaders: either continue in-person instruction and the benefits that come with it or shift, instead, to distance learning and embrace online learning and avoid exposure to the virus.
As school closures began, these schools didn’t face the same bottlenecks as traditional public schools.
Distance learning for cyber charter schools is nothing new, so while traditional public schools scrambled to secured enough Chromebooks, educational software log-ins, and other distance learning tools for their students last spring, cyber charter schools continued business, as usual, using the same instructional methods they had long used to meet students’ needs.
This continuity was likely appealing to many parents, who struggled to make sense of sometimes conflicting information from public health officials, state leaders, local districts, and individual school principals. Although criticized, at least in the aggregate, for their academic track records, cyber charter schools, by contrast, offered a simple, easy-to-understand instructional model for families whose lives otherwise lacked certainty.
This ability to continue instruction without the “growing pains” of shifting from in-person to distance learning extended, as well, to teacher training. Faced with the prospect of multiple hours of video conferencing each day, many teachers in traditional public schools scrambled to understand Zoom, Class Dojo, DreamBox, and any number of other online instructional platforms critical to successful distance learning. Cyber charters didn’t face these same challenges, which likely consumed hours of extra time for teachers and administrators in traditional public schools.
When in-person learning resumes, what will happen to enrollment at cyber charter schools?
While enrollment at cyber charters has increased markedly over the past few months, many analysts see a potential bubble in the making. For many families, enrolling in a cyber charter was a pragmatic choice. While most would prefer to keep their students in traditional public or in-person charter schools, school closures and the public health risks posed by COVID-19 caused them to temporarily enroll their students in a cyber charter.
Once in-person learning resumes and the pandemic finally comes to an end, it remains to be seen whether enrollment at these schools will hold steady or, instead, if parents will simply withdraw their children and re-enroll them in traditional public schools. These shifts will have stark consequences for traditional public and cyber charter schools alike. Higher enrollment typically yields a greater amount of state funding, which in turn impacts schools’ bottom line and programming constraints.
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