Cover Story
ON THE ROAD: McKee working with a student.
Chuck Cook/Genesis
ON THE ROAD: McKee working with a student.

Split decisions

Back to School | Charter growth may hurt private schools and other good/bad education news

Issue: "Back to School," Sept. 7, 2013

Charter challenge

by Joy Pullmann

Advocates sell charter schools as a way to improve education, but evidence is mounting that charters eat into private school enrollment. This may damage opportunities for kids, as research consistently shows religious schools, which constitute most private institutions, educate children better than charter and traditional public schools. 

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This spring, the Census Bureau reported U.S. private school enrollment at a 55-year low, and attributed the slide largely to charter schools—experimental public schools free from some regulations. They sprouted in 1992. Other studies have concluded similarly: A 2006 study found that for every three students a charter school gains, private schools will lose one. Families that pick private and charter schools are similar, said study co-author Ron Zimmer: They typically have two parents and better-educated fathers. This suggests charters and private schools compete more against each other than against traditional public schools, he said.

“You hear [private schools] saying good times are not coming back,” said Michael Horn, education director at the Clayton Christensen Institute. Horn believes competition will “take out the low end in the market of independent schools over the next several years.” Suburban, city, and large private schools have been hardest hit by charter school competition, and especially inner-city Catholic schools, the Census Bureau found. 

In 2011, Seacoast Christian Academy in Jacksonville, Fla., turned its K-5 classes into Seacoast Charter Academy, dropping its weekly chapel service. A number of Catholic schools have become charter schools, removing crucifixes from walls and ending daily recitations of the Lord’s Prayer. 

This shift may reduce the quality of school options families have, as students enrolled in religious schools are academically a year ahead of their charter and traditional public school peers, according to a 2012 analysis of 90 studies.

As some private schools have shed overtly religious elements in their attempt to keep students, others have begun to mimic charters by diving into technology and online learning. 

Online teacher Dannie McKee has taught hundreds of children she has never seen. She gushes about her principal, whom she has also never met. “If she walked up to me I might not recognize her,” McKee said, from her RV inside a Mississippi state park. “I would know her voice.” 

About three years ago, twice-retired McKee found her job upon interacting with her current boss over Facebook. She accepted the job teaching economics and computer skills for Sevenstar, one of the largest online Christian schools, during another RV trip home from El Paso, and teaches on and off frequent road trips with her husband, equipped with a cell phone, laptop, iPad, and mobile router. 

McKee’s students are equally mobile. They hail from the United States, China, Ecuador, Germany, Haiti, South Korea, and the Mercy Ships traveling hospital. Sevenstar signs students up individually and through private schools looking to offer extra classes—especially Advanced Placement, remediation, and foreign languages. 

Many traditional schools incorporate computer instruction, in what’s called “blended learning.” Each week, online students at Oaks Christian Academy join a chat room “students cannot miss, wherever they are in the world,” said Vicki Conway, the online school’s director. On Oaks’ campus north of Los Angeles, all students must take at least two classes online to graduate. Businesses expect employees to teleconference and work independently, and “universities are about 10 years ahead of K-12 education in implementing online learning,” Conway noted.

Students play Pictionary, hold student assemblies, videoconference with teachers, and watch daily chapel services online. Classes blend reading, homework, quizzes and tests, video lectures, and Q&A with teachers. “There is no replacement for the plays and the football games,” Conway tells students. “If you can afford our tuition, you should definitely be with a teacher in a small class. But … if you can’t be here, then it’s a good way to go to school.” 

Full-time online students must have what Conway calls “a compelling reason.” Some care for disabled siblings. For others, a job took the family to Barbados or the United Arab Emirates. Some are junior Olympic athletes or have acting careers, like Supernatural star Colin Ford.  

Conway only accepts self-directed students who can handle extra freedom: “You can’t force a student to work online. Nothing is passive. You must click, and decide what you will study next, choose how to organize your day, [and] say, ‘I didn’t learn that very well, I’m going to go back and study that again.’”

For this reason, most online learning programs target and enroll high-school students. Fewer enroll middle-schoolers, and just a few aim for elementary children. But some schools “flip the classroom,” as teachers record lectures for students to watch at home, then use class time for guided homework.

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