My Nation colleague Lee Fang has published a really fascinating investigative piece about the explosion in lobbying around K-12 for-profit virtual education, particularly targeting charter schools. This is a sector of the education world that’s very difficult to track, because every state has different, often vague laws about how for-profit companies can be involved in public education.

As of 2008, thirteen states allowed charter schools to partner with for-profit companies for facilities, seventeen states allowed partnerships for services and three states actually allowed for-profit companies to directly open a charter school. But even in states where for-profits are not allowed to hold a charter themselves, they are sometimes allowed to spin-off an affiliated nonprofit to hold the charter, which will then contract with the for-profit for services. (This is prevalent in Ohio). Here in New York, no charter opened after 2010 can be managed by a for-profit, but in Michigan, 80 percent of charters are for-profit.

What do for-profit education services for public K-12 schools look like? Sometimes they are online-learning classes or tutoring services offered to students enrolled in brick-and-mortar schools. Sometimes they are completely virtual schools, like the one described by Katherine Boo in her 2007 New Yorker piece about the collapse of Manual High School in Denver:

Ashley, who had been accepted into a small, competitive program at another public high school, was uneasy, too, and, anyway, there were flyers at Wal-Mart about a publicly funded online charter school a few blocks from home. One of the people involved with the program had been a Denver Nugget, and his daughter was the R. & B. singer India.Arie. Students did their work on the Internet, and it was graded by teachers in an office somewhere else. Plus, they could train to be nurses or doctors, or something; the details weren’t clear. Still, after a stressful year, the chance to stay near home, with Internet access and relational proximity to India.Arie, seemed soothing, so two of Manual’s star students changed their plans.

As Fang notes, online learning can be an important supplement to real-world classrooms; I think this is especially true for advanced high school students, who should be given the chance to jump ahead in the curriculum, perhaps through video lectures from college professors. The problem is that the studies we have of typical online learning outcomes haven’t shown very impressive results. Fang writes:

A recent study of virtual schools in Pennsylvania conducted by the Center for Research on Education Outcomes at Stanford University revealed that students in online schools performed significantly worse than their traditional counterparts. Another study, from the University of Colorado in December 2010, found that only 30 percent of virtual schools run by for-profit organizations met the minimum progress standards outlined by No Child Left Behind, compared with 54.9 percent of brick-and-mortar schools. For White Hat Management, the politically connected Ohio for-profit operating both traditional and virtual charter schools, the success rate under NCLB was a mere 2 percent, while for schools run by K12 Inc., it was 25 percent. A major review by the Education Department found that policy reforms embracing online courses “lack scientific evidence” of their effectiveness.

So there’s good reason to proceed with caution, which is difficult to do when folks like Jeb Bush are traveling the nation advocating for absurd laws like one recently passed in Florida, which requires every single public high school student to enroll in at least one online course before graduation. This is certainly putting the cart—technological "innovation"—before the horse, which should be a quality education provided by effective teachers.