Selecting Silicon: Why Parents Choose Online Charter Schools

4/1/2006 5:00:00 AM

Change has been the watchword in K-12 education for the past few decades, but the evolution of school choice has been a particularly significant and far-reaching change (Bauman, 2001; Cark, 2001; Tortter, 2001). The choice movement has brought with it open boundaries and competition as well as a wide variety of exciting new educational alternatives made possible by equally exciting new technologies. One of these is charter schools, which have come into their own nationwide.

One of the most interesting and innovative of charter school varieties is the online charter school. The future of technological innovation can be seen when thinking about the possible skills that can be built within online charter schools. But what can explain why parents choose a virtual charter school for their children? Particularly interesting in this question is why would home schooling parents whose politics and decisions tend toward the conservative, embrace a very innovative and untested form of learning for their children. Understanding the reasons for home-schoolers to choose an online charter can lead us to deep understandings about their attitudes toward traditional public and private schools and may in turn inform an openness to innovative models of schooling.

Virtual Charter Schools

On-line schooling, also known as virtual schooling, has become the most recent option to replace as well as supplement conventional education. According to Technology & Learning magazine, 82 online public schools exist in 19 states (Solomon, 2004). Virtual schools have cropped up everywhere in so many flavors that Baskin Robbins might be jealous. Virtual schooling has, to this point, primarily served the students who have some barriers impacting their attendance at brick and mortar schools. Thus, a virtual high school in Nova Scotia may serve rural Canadian populations in an effort to connect geographically dispersed students. Or, perhaps students need a particular, perhaps low enrollment course such as Latin language study, but their school does not support the course because of the daunting economics of low enrollment courses. Online resources can step in and assist with these problems within the context of the traditional school. Enrollment in distance programs is nearing 1 million and is increasing by 20% annually. As U.S. News and World Report recently observed, “Across the country, e-learning has changed from a technological curiosity to an integral part of rural public school education, offering more class options to students.”(McGrath, 2004, 37).

However, an online charter school is quite different. Online charters are alternatives to traditional schools rather than an integration of online learning into already existing curricula. The online charter school movement is growing with an estimated 100,000 students enrolled in some form of online charter school, and 57 charter schools in existence in the U.S. across 30 states. Given that 500,000 students are enrolled in some form of charter school, the 100,000 student enrollment number means that one in five of them are engaged in some form of online charter school experience. (Department of Education, 2003).

These numbers are compelling, but what would cause parents to take the dramatic step away from the traditional school system and decide to enroll their child in an online virtual charter school? The answer to this question will help anyone interested in improving education to see clearly, from a parent’s perspective, what the public schools may be missing that online charters are offering.

PAVCS & K12, Inc.—What Does a Virtual Charter School Look Like?

Pennsylvania Virtual Charter School (PAVCS) is one of four virtual charter schools that have maintained a charter in Pennsylvania for the past three years. During 2002-2003, PAVCS enrolled approximately 600 total K-5 learners. Growth has been phenomenal—PAVCS currently has more than 2000 students, a relatively large student body if they were to be physically housed in a brick and mortar school building. As a non-profit school, PAVCS is unique in that it exclusively offers a curriculum package developed under the leadership of the former Secretary of Education, William Bennett. The curriculum and company is called K12 Inc., and is designated as a for-profit company. So, while PAVCS is a non-profit charter school—thus funded by tax dollars, it’s affiliation with K12 Inc. represents a for-profit connection which is not obvious to the superficial observer.

Marketing itself specifically to home-schooling populations, (PAVCS, 2003) PAVCS has been in operation for three years. When a parent signs up for PAVCS, they are automatically enrolled in the K12, inc. curriculum. This has both an upside and a downside. The good news is that all parents receive several boxes of materials that accompany the online curriculum. These materials include a new computer and printer for each child. In addition, parents receive a small stipend check for the purposes of ensuring Internet connectivity. The primary downside, particularly for home schooling parents, is that the curriculum has a relatively high level of accountability associated with it.

Exploring the Decision

Many parents are motivated by dissatisfaction to break from traditional schooling (Peck & Carr, 1997). In general, this dissatisfaction is most simply expressed as an inability on the part of traditional schooling to help children reach their potential. Whether it is a special need for a disabled or gifted child, a need to express certain religious or fundamental values, or negative prior experiences in schools as students or even teachers, home schooling parents feel that the schools as they currently exist simply can not meet the needs of their children as well as home schooling can.

This dissatisfaction is only a part of the picture because choosing PAVCS is a more radical choice than home schooling. When we asked parents about the unusual decision to choose an online charter school, we found that they had three primary reasons for their decision.

Reason 1: Online charters can customize for my child’s needs.

Because the heart of the home school choice is related to the need to individualize learning experiences for their children, home school parents are particularly susceptible to the potentials of technology to make individualization a more feasible and attractive option. A May 2, 2002 letter in The Wall Street Journal confirmed parents’ desires, “Cybers have the power to combine customized curriculum of charter schools with easy access and flexibility of the Internet… making these schools uniquely adaptable to the students’ individual needs.”

As an example of this power, PAVCS visually individualized student progress. On the computer, a color-coded bar displays daily student progress. One parent saw this as a motivator for her child, “My child competes against the progress bar. "

In contrast, most parents we talked to felt that traditional schools used individualization to label students. From these parents’ vantage point, inadequate time with students, bored teachers, and general educational system dysfunction contributed to perpetuating the system—but there was hope that technology might help solve this problem. One parent’s description of PAVCS sharply contrasted with her experience of traditional school. She referred to PAVCS as a “caring family” and viewed “teachers as friends”:

They respond to parental feedback and they care what we think. They really care. They really care about kids’ education. I feel like I am friends with them. My teacher is great. I love the whole thing. The teachers care. Like a family.

Surprsingly, technology perpetuated this caring feeling. In traditional schools, most parents engaged in phone and face-to-face feedback. Comparatively, PAVCS used continual email, newsletters, and encouraged virtual Yahoo groups. Through these alternative means parents connected with other parents and with PACVS officials, which often led parents to adapt the curriculum for the children.

Reason 2: I can try this without financial risk and with some possible rewards—or Everybody loves free stuff!

Although parents spent less than five minutes conversing about financials, the incentives were obvious; it “was a no brainer” compared to other home school curriculum products or private school tuition which parents paid out-of-pocket. One parent explained: “First reason for going with the charter school –economically, because it is paid for with your taxes.”

As a public school, PAVCS supplies all materials and support to parents by using tax dollars. After enrolling in the program, parents receive boxes of materials that include books, paints, musical instruments, hands-on activities, a computer and a printer for each child, and a monthly stipend for an Internet service. A parent confessed with a grin:

I wouldn’t want to give up the computer. I’m a geek. So, I thought, here is the reward; I keep this computer; I stay in the program. So, I stayed in, and it all worked out.

Another parent added, “My primary motive was to get the materials.” All of the parents shared a similar perception of this benefit as one they’ve already paid for through their taxes.

Reason 3: I have hope and with it I can change the world

The parents to whom we spoke carried with them the disposition of hope throughout their decision making. Hope arrived through a post card, a newspaper article, or an interview with William Bennett heard on Focus on the Family radio,

One day I happened to flip on Focus on the Family, … When we went to their home page I saw there was two charter schools, one in Oregon and one in PA. I couldn’t believe my luck. (Chuckle). I clicked on it, and it was all free.

Since these parents were searching for a program that made sense but was not an additional financial burden, finding PAVCS was extremely enticing. What is perhaps most interesting about this particular orientation is that while home school parents reflect a highly conservative politic, they are sufficiently motivated to take a large risk, making a decidedly non-conservative choice to join the technology revolution via PAVCS. Partially this is because their values are in alignment with Bill Bennett and thus, the corresponding K12, Inc. curriculum.

What can we learn?

Parents’ decisions to adopt the PAVCS virtual charter school for their children’s education can teach us some very important lessons about school change and the ability to move parents toward innovative, untested solutions to learning problems. It is a given that home schooling parents voiced deep dissatisfaction with traditional schools. McClelland also found that prolonged relationships with schools intensified dissatisfaction, but unlike McClelland’s parents, these parents had a multi-faceted and clearly viable alternative to traditional schooling: the virtual charter school option; the home schooling tradition; the rise of William Bennett’s creation, K-12 Inc.; the spawning of PAVCS; and the school accountability movement.

More specifically, K12 Inc., the first curriculum company directed by a former national secretary of Education, capitalizes and profits directly from public school dissatisfaction. In this capacity, Dr. William Bennett’s name provided personage for the company. One parent described what this meant to her:

Bill Bennett was on there (on the radio) talking about a Public School in PA. I have confidence in Bill Bennett and he is a good man. I read the Book of Virtues to my kids. I trusted him. I knew that he was associated with Regan and anyone he (Regan) was associated with was a good thing.

This parent linked the influence of William Bennett to her decision to adopt K12 Inc., and in this statement aligned herself with a conservative agenda. Notably, five of the six parents we spoke with identified themselves as conservatives, which is consistent with documentation of home-schoolers and customers of K12 Inc. (Golden, 2000).

What we have learned from these parents’ views is that when alternatives are available that are consistent with their cultural values and needs, parents will choose those alternatives. In this case the alternative is a high-tech online charter school. Parents did not experience any daunting technological difficulties. They did not talk about frustrations with the technologies so common to earlier waves of technology innovations in schools. They were committed to employing this curriculum and found ways to overcome any technical problems they had. Naturally, early adopters are likely to be highly skilled, and as one confessed, even, “technological geeks” and so it might not be too surprising that they overcame their difficulties where a more aggressive and pervasive deployment of virtual charter schools might produce far more technological glitches.

PAVCS is only partially about the technological nature of the innovation. A decision to make use of PAVCS meant that parents could focus on fulfilling their needs for control and values expression while at the same time attending to their children’s needs for customization and individualization. These parents spoke passionately about powerlessness, and felt that their voices could not change the system. Many of us support these parental voices, seeing too many traditional schools as factories, with foci on efficiency and uniformity. (Reigeluth, 1995).

Parents can and will find alternatives to traditional schools due to the combination of socio-cultural changes and modern technologies now available. And remarkably, even very conservative populations will take significant risks with their children’s education if given the opportunity to express their values, individualize and challenge their children with significant curricula. PAVCS is but one example of an innovative, attractive alternative, which utilizes high technology and social change to give parents and children an option. While, the same technologies are available to all schools, the current educational system does not fully support customized student learning to the level that is possible for home schoolers—for to do so would be politically overwhelming if not altogether unfeasible. These parents’ voices challenge traditional educators and those engaged in educational change and reform to pay attention to the result of market driven education partnered with technological innovation. They express what many parents may feel, but do not act upon. They invite us into fantastic debates over the future of our schools. They tell us that technology can afford a far greater attention to the individual needs of their children, more power, significant academic rigor, and a way to express their values within the traditional school curriculum—oh, and free stuff doesn’t hurt either.

Email: Alison A. Carr-Chellman

Email: Beth R. Sockman

  • Bauman, K.J. (2001). Home Schooling in the United States: Trends and Characteristics. Population Division. Washington, DC.
  • Clark, T. (2001). Virtual schools: Trends and issues. A Study of Virtual Schools in the United States.
  • Department of Education (2001). CyberCharter Schools Review ( Downloaded 3/10/2003.
  • Golden, D. (2000). Former Secretary of Education Plans School on Internet The Wall Street Journal. December 28.
  • McClelland, J. (1997). Knowing and being known: Parent’s experiences with rural schools. Journal of Research in Rural Education, 13 (2), 108-16.
  • Peck, K.L. & Carr, A.A. (1997). Restoring public confidence in school through systems thinking. International journal of educational reform, 6 (3), 316-23.
  • PAVCS - Pennsylvania Virtual Charter School. Downloaded 03/30/2003.
  • Reigeluth, C.M. (1995). A Conversation on Guidelines for the Process of Facilitating Systemic Change in Education.
  • Solomon, G. (2004). Finding funding: A Dozen Daring Ideas. Technology and learning, xx (x), 33-43.
  • Trotter, A. (2001). Bennett’s Online Education Venture Opens for Business ( Education Week.

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