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Why Bad Online Courses Are Still Taught in Schools


This article is part of the Big Shortcut, an eight-part series exploring the exponential rise in online learning for high school students who have failed traditional classes.

An increasing number of states are getting serious about vetting the online education companies that are now responsible for instructing a growing number of their kids. And Florida, at first glance, would seem to be one of them.

Each year, state officials scrutinize these online courses to ensure they meet state academic standards, as well as several other criteria. Last year, the Florida Department of Education rejected the company Online Education Ventures, which failed to provide descriptions of its virtual courses in science, social studies, and English (it provided descriptions of the math courses, but they didn’t meet state standards). A year earlier, the state disqualified Mosaica Online because the company didn’t show it could provide timely information about its courses. And it said no to Odysseyware, since it failed to outline student anti-discrimination policies or show how its products could meet the needs of students with disabilities.

But here’s the rub: Those companies are still allowed to sell their products to schools in Florida. Public school districts can still use public money to educate students with discredited products like Online Education Ventures’. And the state says it has no idea how many of its 75 school districts—if any—are doing just that. “School districts may contract with any online course provider they wish to work with,” said Alix Miller, a department spokeswoman. Florida’s system for regulating online education looks like it has at least some rigor. In practice, it’s as thin as a sheet of loose-leaf paper.

Florida is one of a growing number of states that are starting to rate or review online course providers, offering a check on a booming industry that’s reshaping the nature of high school education nationally. But as in Florida, in most of these states the new rules have very little teeth. Local control reigns supreme.

And across the country an even more powerful anti-regulation force is at work. The conservative American Legislative Exchange Council has made expanding online learning—unfettered and in all of its forms—one of its priorities. In Florida and several other states, ALEC has quietly but effectively helped mostly Republican lawmakers pass the kinds of laws the online learning companies want—laws that, for instance, require all graduating high school students to complete at least one virtual class. The online learning companies (especially K12 Inc.) work closely with ALEC and friendly politicians to help win their hearts and minds, and in some cases, substantially fatten their campaign coffers.

Despite the recent, tepid attempts at regulation, the expansion of online education exemplifies two stubborn facts of American policymaking: that local school authorities will retain heavy sway over what is taught and who teaches it, and that the purchase of influence with money will ensure that things stay that way.

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Which states are regulating online education, and how thoroughly are they regulating it? According to a first-of–its-kind, 50-state survey conducted by the Teacher Project, 32 states are taking steps to rank, rate, or very lightly regulate virtual learning providers. But there’s enormous variation in how these regulations work. Some states, for example, mandate that school districts confirm on their own that online courses meet certain criteria while other departments take it upon themselves to inspect the courses.

And despite the flurry of new rating efforts, in most states school districts are still welcome to license products that fail to make the grade—with just a few exceptions. Only six states—Arizona, Kentucky, Nevada, North Dakota, Virginia, and Washington—restrict states from buying discredited virtual content. By contrast, 19 states prohibit schools from buying textbooks that were denied approval from the state, according to Jennifer Thomsen, the director of the Knowledge and Research Center at the Education Commission of the States. The higher level of scrutiny for traditional textbooks suggests that state regulations have yet to catch up with the reality on the ground: that online education is booming in public schools.

Even some states that more rigorously monitor online providers have strange loopholes. In Virginia, any company that wants to work with more than one district must first seek and win departmental approval. Virginia’s online provider approval process takes 45 business days and requires companies to prove—among other things—that their offerings are comparable to “courses taught in traditional school environments.” To ascertain this, online providers have to provide an online syllabus for each course and submit a report from a third party explaining how each class meets or exceeds state standards. But online providers only have to meet the standards if more than one school district have a contract with them. If a company only sells to a single school district, then anything goes.

Meanwhile, officials in most states have done very little to gauge even very basic numbers when it comes to online credit recovery, including how many students are taking the courses. Our survey found that officials at more than 40 state education departments have no idea how many students make up credits online, or when districts in their states began the practice of online credit recovery. Just nine states require that districts record on transcripts whether credits are earned online or in traditional classes, making it virtually impossible to trace how common online credit recovery is across the country, and where it has spread the fastest. It’s a jungle, and there’s not much of a map.

As it happens, one of the most rigorous judges of online credit recovery classes is the NCAA. Every year, the organization analyzes thousands of high school transcripts to ensure that students have taken enough classes that meet their standards. (Courses that have been approved and denied can be found, organized by high school, on the NCAA’s eligibility center portal.) To pass muster, credit recovery classes must be “quantitatively and qualitatively” the same as traditional in-person classes, says Nick Sproull, whose department oversees the review. All classes must include substantial teacher-pupil interaction, as well as a significant time investment on the part of the student.

The NCAA’s standard is higher than what any state government requires for its students. “There is a great deal of trust that the locally elected board of trustees is upholding high standards,” said Timothy Tharp, the interim deputy superintendent of Montana’s Office of Public Instruction.

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What emerges from our survey is one clear truth: The way states are regulating online learning largely suits the companies that stand to gain the most from its spread. That isn’t a coincidence. Over the past two decades, online learning companies, including K12 Inc., Edgenuity, and Connections Education, have successfully lobbied legislators across the country to create laws and regulations that help promote online education.

Major online learning companies have collectively spent millions of dollars donating to state-level officials over the past 10 years, according to disclosure records collected by the Center for Responsive Politics and donation records published by the National Institute on Money in State Politics. K12 has spent upward of $2 million, Edgenuity spent more than $300,000, and Connections Education, about $270,000. These may not be Big Tobacco levels of political bread-buttering, but they do appear to have made a difference.

Even modest donations to individual lawmakers can add up to have a big effect. In Florida, K12 Inc.—one of the few online learning companies required to publicly disclose its political contributions—has made regular contributions of between $500 and $2,000 to individual lawmakers’ election and re-election campaigns while Connections Education has tipped at least $24,000 on state-level campaigns in the state since 2006. In 2011, lawmakers in Florida voted to require all graduating seniors to have completed at least one online course. At least 32 of the state lawmakers who backed the statute had received donations from K12 the previous year. In fact, all but one Florida lawmaker who received contributions—however small—from K12 in 2010 voted in favor of virtual learning in 2011.

Lawmakers with reservations about the push toward online learning say the virtual education companies and ALEC play political hardball. Geraldine Thompson, a Democrat who served as a Florida House representative and then state senator between 2006 and 2016, voted against the digital learning law in 2011. “If you don’t support a particular issue, many times you will have a potential contributor who will say, ‘Well, we’ll find someone to run against you, or we’re going to contribute to your opponent.’ ” Thompson said she has Republican colleagues who’ve been denied committee chairmanships or even premium parking spaces for opposing ALEC initiatives although she declined to provide specific examples. Wisconsin Democratic Congressman Mark Pocan, who was an ALEC member for a few years when he was a Wisconsin assemblyman, told us that most of the time the threat of being primaried is enough. “I never saw a situation where Republicans struck down an ALEC bill,” he said.

Companies like K12 Inc. are open about the commercial advantages of lobbing for laws, like the Florida one, which help expand online education. In its 2016 Securities and Exchange Commission filings, K12 wrote that “cash flows could be adversely affected” if statutes that restrict virtual learning are put in place. To protect its interests, K12 wrote, it assesses how amenable lawmakers are to persuasion before “deciding to commit resources” in a given state.

ALEC has orchestrated many of these lobbying efforts behind the scenes—connecting company officials with state lawmakers at mixers and other events. There was the 2011 ALEC-sponsored dinner in New Orleans, for instance, where Connections Education lobbyists mingled with lawmakers at Antoine’s Restaurant over steak and oysters Rockefeller, according to documents compiled by the Center for Media and Democracy.

ALEC, which describes itself as a nonpartisan voluntary membership organization, is in practice an exclusive club for corporations and Republican state legislators interested in promoting conservative causes such as “stand your ground” laws. The group’s interest in virtual learning fits with its broader ethos of promoting entrepreneurship and choice in education at the expense of traditional classrooms. Those familiar with the buzzwords favored by Education Secretary Betsy DeVos will recognize ALEC’s description of its education policy agenda: It wants charter schools, voucher programs, and tax credit scholarships to “let parents take back control” of “the current monopolistic and expensive K-12 education system.”

ALEC’s modus operandi—beyond the mixers—is to provide state legislators with the literal text of the bill its corporate members want enacted and encourage them to make the text law. ALEC’s 2005 “Virtual Public Schools Act,” a model bill that opens up public schools to online learning companies, has been a particular favorite of state lawmakers: The preamble—which calls for states to “utilize existing resources, along with technology” to provide school choice options to parents and work to close the achievement gap—has appeared nearly word for word in Illinois, Mississippi, Oregon, and Tennessee.

ALEC has also worked to help influence lawmakers in at least some of the five states that require students to take at least one online course to graduate. In 2011, for instance, when Florida enacted such a requirement, the bill had ALEC’s fingerprints all over it: In the House, it was sponsored by Republican Rep. Kelli Stargel, who has since served as ALEC’s Florida chairwoman; in the Senate, it was sponsored by Anitere Flores, who ALEC documents show was a member in 2010. Of the 98 House representatives who voted the bill through, 46 had an ALEC affiliation. It’s a pattern seen in other parts of the country, too. In Indiana in 2011, several of ALEC’s model bills were rolled into the state’s omnibus education reform package; in Maine the following year, ALEC members were instrumental in sponsoring and voting for legislation to deregulate the school system and encourage digital learning, according to reporting by the Portland Press Herald.

At the state level, there’s clearly something of a contradiction when it comes to monitoring online education: As our survey showed, some state departments of education are taking an interest in regulating online providers, but that’s more than counterbalanced by wholehearted (and all-too-often unquestioning) support from state legislatures. With money and political connections at stake, too few lawmakers have an incentive to curb—or at least ask hard questions about—online education’s rapid rise. Like school districts interested in boosting graduation rates, lawmakers have much to gain in supporting laws that enable the industry’s unfettered expansion.

So far the unquestioning side appears to be winning.

Zoë Kirsch is a reporting fellow at the Teacher Project and a Columbia Journalism School graduate. Her work covering city politics, health care, and criminal justice has been published in Philadelphia magazine and the Houston Press.

Stephen Smiley is a Teacher Project fellow writing for Slate’s Schooled section. A Columbia Journalism School graduate, he used to cover politics in Australia for the Australian Broadcasting Corporation and is now based in New York City.


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