What's the Controversy around Cyber Charter Schools?

by June Ahn - June 16, 2010

Cyber charter schools are becoming a rapidly mainstream part of K-12 public education. As these online schools expand, they engender much controversy amongst stakeholders. This commentary outlines the coming debates surrounding K-12 cyber schools and calls for deliberate and thoughtful policymaking to better govern these innovative organizations.

Theodore Sizer (2005, p. 5) once noted that “Of the many arguments for charter schools, one is crucial; that charters should be deliberately, thoughtfully, boldly different from existing mainline public middle and high schools.” Innovation is most definitely part of the ethos surrounding charter reform. Charters have introduced many benefits to the public school system such as expanding local control, creating uniquely mission-driven schools, and increasing flexibility in hiring and governance. Despite innovations in policy and governance, the process of teaching and learning has remained largely intact. We still deliver education with the same system of physical classrooms, curriculum, teachers, students, and staff regardless of the type of school a student is enrolled in. However, cyber charter schools (CCS, also known as online or virtual schools) promise to radically alter how we deliver education to youth. By combining the affordances of distance learning and the flexibility of charter policy, these rising school forms drastically change how we imagine education in the 21st century.

Just as these new school organizations are hitting the mainstream, the usual politics and rancor surrounding K-12 education threatens their development. In their best-selling book, Disrupting Class: How Disruptive Education will Change the Way the World Learns, Christensen and colleagues predict that distance learning will expand rapidly in K-12 education. As this occurs, fiery debates will emerge between various stakeholders and will raise numerous questions. A recent New York Times article highlights some of the emerging controversies around cyber charters (Pogash, 2010). How do we fund students in distance education and define enrollment boundaries? How do cyber charters spend their money when they can hire fewer teachers and have no physical facilities? Do cyber charters encourage profiteering? How do we ensure accountability for these new school forms?

Sizer’s (2005) words about the theory of charter schools to be deliberately, thoughtfully, boldly different, help ground how to think about cyber charters in the coming years. What’s clear from the early research on CCSs is that they are a bold departure from traditional schools (Ahn, 2011; Huerta, d’Entremont, & Gonzalez, 2006; Huerta, Gonzalez, & d’Entremont, 2006). By using distance learning platforms, cyber charters can dramatically restructure curriculum, time, physical facilities, and social support to guide students through the learning process. For example, students who take online courses can move at their own pace and access the curriculum anytime, anywhere. Hypothetically, students are no longer bound by an 8am-3pm school day or a September-June school year. Learning can happen anytime, all-the-time.

Contrary to popular belief, students in cyber charters are not glued to their computer screens with no human interaction. Some schools are hybrid schools, with a physical school building where students and teachers meet face-to-face. Perhaps students complete standard curriculum online, and meet with peers and teachers to complete project-based courses in the physical school. Students might access their curriculum at home, but attend school for one-on-one support from their teachers on campus. These are the innovative organizational and pedagogical strategies that might emerge from a hybrid model. Some schools are also entirely online, with platforms that allow students to meet virtually with students and teachers. Ironically, distance learning technologies make the delivery of curriculum more efficient, opening time for higher quality interactions and individualized social support from teachers, counselors, parents, and other adults (Ahn, 2011). Students at cyber charters can end up with a more personalized experience than their peers in large public schools.

While CCSs are bold innovations, the policies that govern these schools are currently a wild frontier. The majority of states do not yet have explicit policies to govern cyber charters, and in those states that allow CCSs, numerous policy concerns remain under-developed. Cyber charters are not loopholes for profiteering corporations as opponents such as Diane Ravitch suggest (Pogash, 2010), but neither should cyber charter operators be left to their own devices with little fiscal or educational accountability. Again Sizer’s words to be deliberate and thoughtful are prescient for these new school forms. The question is not whether to allow or eliminate CCSs as an education option. The relevant question should be: What are the critical policy and governance needs for cyber charters in the coming years?

We should note that charter schools are public schools with the same reporting and academic accountability responsibilities as their traditional district school counterparts. Cyber charters are no different, but their unique educational models conflict with several education policies. For example, states will need policies designed to:

Delineate enrollment boundaries. Can students enroll across districts? Could we allow students to enroll across state boundaries?

Distribute equitable funding that follows the student. How will districts receive funds for students in other locations? How much funding will cyber charters receive? How will states calculate per-pupil funding when there is no traditional school day, or students progress through classes at their own pace?

Ensure fiscal reporting and financial audits to make cyber charter spending transparent to the public. Skeptics of cyber charters wonder where public funds are going when schools might not have physical facilities or hire fewer teachers. However, as new schools experiment with different ways to deploy resources, cyber charters may merely shift funds to different needs. For example, CCSs might require fewer traditional, classroom teachers, but spend more funds on counselors, support staff, and new technology.

Fund research to identify effective models of cyber schooling. Policymakers will need such a research base to consider questions about resources, teacher quality and preparation for virtual settings, and methods to improve distance education in the K-12 system.

Define clearly the responsibility of authorizers as they govern cyber charters. Authorizers are entities (i.e., school districts) that approve and monitor charter schools. Scholars are only beginning to examine the practices of authorizers, but they will be a critical link to ensuring accountability of cyber charters. For example, a recent study of authorizers found that 52% do not use expert panels to assess charter applications (National Association of Charter School Authorizers, 2010). Such expert panels, with particular knowledge of cyber schooling, may go a long way to ensure the quality of future CCSs.

This very moment in time presents a unique opportunity for education leaders and analysts. Cyber schooling in the K-12 sector is only just emerging and will be the hot button topic over the next decade. Whether cyber charters are successfully integrated into the public school system or fade away will be a compelling question for analysts and reformers. Knee-jerk reactions that quell the evolution of these new schools may prove yet another sad commentary on the capacity of K-12 education to innovate. Instead, deliberate and thoughtful development of cyber schools promises to help us reach more students and increase the likelihood that youth from all backgrounds can access an education that is tailored to their needs.


Ahn, J. (2011). Policy, technology, and practice in cyber charter schools: Framing the issues. Teachers College Record, 113(1).

Christensen, C. M., Horn, M. B., & Johnson, C. W. (2008). Disrupting class: How disruptive innovation will change the way the world learns. New York: McGraw Hill.

Huerta, L. A., d’Entremont, C., & Gonzalez, M. F. (2006). Cyber charter schools: Can Accountability keep pace with innovation? Phi Delta Kappan, 88(1), 23-30.

Huerta, L. A., Gonzalez, M. F., & d’Entremont, C. (2006). Cyber and home charter schools: Adopting new policy to new forms of public schooling. Peabody Journal of Education, 8(1), 103-139.

National Association of Charter School Authorizers. (2010). The state of charter school authorizing 2009: The second annual report on NACSA’s authorizer survey. Chicago, IL.

Pogash, C. (2010). Public financing supports growth of online charter schools. Retrieved on June 10, 2010 from http://www.nytimes.com/2010/06/04/us/04bccharter.html.

Sizer, T. R. (2005). Don’t tie us down. Education Next, 5(3), 59-61.

Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record, Date Published: June 16, 2010
https://www.tcrecord.org ID Number: 16018, Date Accessed: 8/5/2021 5:49:37 PM

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