Online K-12 education during the coronavirus crisis, explained

The forced closing of public schools and the move to “distance learning” through online tools, apps, pre-packaged lesson plans, and tracking devices raises the question: what does the future of education look like?

Understandably, education technology companies like Google and K12 Inc. see the current crisis—and the unfolding economic downturn—as an opportunity to expand market share and increase profits.

While technology can and will be used creatively to enhance public education, In the Public Interest believes that policy decisions must be guided by educators and a commitment to democratic control of universal public education for all. Too often policy debates are fueled by outlandish claims, emotionally charged language, clever marketing, and vague promises.

The following is meant to provide clarity during the uncertain months to come:

 Research

Facts about edtech, online education, and internet access

  • Schools providing online K-12 education have been called “online schools,” “online charter schools,” “virtual schools,” “cyber schools,” and more.
  • In 2017-18, 501 full-time online schools enrolled 297,712 students, and 300 blended schools enrolled 132,960.
  • The average for-profit online school is more than four times as large as the average online school operated not-for-profit, either by a nonprofit or school district.
  • The largest for-profit online charter school corporations are K12 Inc. and Connections Academy (owned by Pearson). Combined, they accounted for 52 percent of all full-time online school students in 2015-16.
  • K12 Inc. and Connections have spent more than $14.5 million on lobbying since 2000 in the 25 states with public records.
  • K12 Inc. was providing funding for the conservative American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC) as recent as December 2019.
  • Pennsylvania is losing $290 million to online charter schools each year.
  • In 2015-2018, investments in K-12 edtech products totaled over $4.5 billion.
  • In 2017 and 2018, venture capitalists made an average of 16 investments in edtech each month.
  • Only 10 percent of the more than 100 ed-tech applications and services evaluated in a 2018 study met minimum criteria for transparency and quality in their privacy policies.
  • Roughly three-in-ten adults with household incomes below $30,000 a year don’t own a smartphone. More than four-in-ten don’t have home broadband services or a traditional computer.
  • Rural Americans are 12 percentage points less likely than Americans overall to have home broadband.
  • In rural California, some 41 percent of households with school-age children do not have broadband access at home.

Knowledgeable sources

  • In the Public Interest (jmohler@inthepublicinterest.org, 301-752-8413)
  • Network for Public Education (info@networkforpubliceducation.org)
  • National Education Policy Center (Kevin Welner, nepc@colorado.edu)

About In the Public Interest

In the Public Interest is a national nonprofit research and policy organization that studies public goods and services. We help citizens, public officials, advocacy groups, and researchers better understand the impacts of government privatization on public services, democracy, equity, and public budgets.