Have Colorado educators cracked the code to digital diversity?

The state’s online public charter schools are national outliers when it comes to enrolling students of color

ABOVE PHOTO: Dawn Davis, a Marion County parent, said she continues to send her children to an online school because she wanted to protect them from racism and discrimination. “I just don’t want my children subjected to it.” Courtesy Photo: Dawn Davis. 

Critics of online public charter schools in Oregon have long pointed to the fact that “cybercharter” students enrolled statewide are disproportionately white.

That characteristic, in fact, bears true across the country — with the exception of Colorado, where online charter schools have become more diverse than the student body statewide.

“Colorado was the interesting one,” said Bryan Mann, a professor at the University of Kansas Department of Educational Leadership and Policy Studies, who has published research into online school student demographics across the county. He describes Colorado’s diversity in online public charters as “the outlier… that was different from everybody else.”

That outlier status could take on new relevance as parents, students and educators in Oregon and across the country review a year of distance-learning.

Bryan Mann, assistant professor in the University of Kansas Department of Educational Leadership and Policy Studies, has studied racial diversity in online charters. – Courtesy photo: Bryan Mann

Racial Issues

Though the Oregon Department of Education ordered public school students to return to the classroom this spring, school districts from Portland to Polk County have decided to continue online learning as an option for students and families.

And for some students and parents, that option looks very attractive.

As reported last month by Pamplin Media Group, some LGBTQ students said they enjoyed learning from home, away from the alienation and bullying they felt at school.

And in majority-white Oregon, some families of color might be drawn to online learning for many of the same reasons.

Dawn Davis, a Marion County parent, said her family’s relationship with online schooling began with food allergies, but continued because she wanted to protect her Black children from racism and discrimination. “I just don’t want my children subjected to it,” she said.

Indeed, some Black parents in California are keeping their kids in online schools for similar reasons, the Los Angeles Times reported last month.

Oregon State Sen. Lew Frederick, a former member of the state Board of Education and a critic of online charter schools, said he understands those sentiments. But rather than an argument for online charters, he says they show that reforms for public education need to be prioritized.

“I’m not at all surprised by (Black families) saying that they are not necessarily interested in going back to (in-person school),” said Frederick, who was the only Black man serving in the Oregon Legislature after being appointed to a House seat in 2009. Return to normal, he said, means “just going back into a system that has for decades assumed that they were lesser than in the first place, right? So we’ve got to figure out how to how to address that right away.”

But are there lessons to be learned in Colorado?

Differences between states

In May, the Portland Tribune reported that, during the pandemic, the number of Oregonians enrolling their children in online schools that are chartered under the umbrella of public school districts climbed by more than 50% — even as enrollment in traditional schools declined.

But one thing did not change: Although online charter schools are open to all families in Oregon, their combined student body is about 27% whiter than enrollment statewide, according to data kept by the Oregon Department of Education and analyzed by Pamplin Media Group.

In 2019 and 2020, statewide public school enrollment has held at roughly 60% white, 24% Latino, nearly 7% multiracial, 4% Asian and a little over 2% Black in Oregon. In the same period, at the public online schools that report enrollment by race and ethnicity, the number of students identified as white held steady at just over 75% of total enrollment, Latino about 12%, Asian 2%, Black and multiracial both at less than 2%.

Critics of online charters in Oregon have cited these numbers as evidence that they siphon funding from traditional public education, leaving a more diverse student body behind to split the remaining funds. An analysis of Oregon’s numbers by Mann, the Kansas professor, mirrored the one done by Pamplin Media Group.

In Colorado, however, he found that white enrollment in online charters constituted 36%, as compared to 54% white students in brick-and-mortar schools statewide.

Mann’s findings, though published two years ago, came as a surprise to several people in Colorado contacted by the Pamplin Media Group.

“I was not aware that our demographics looked different when compared nationally, so that was new information for me,” said Bill Kottenstette, the director of school choice for Colorado Department of Education, a unit that oversees online charter schools.

Theories varied over how to explain the difference, but an exploration of Colorado’s online charter system did reveal some differences from its equivalent in Oregon.

Lew Fredrick

Oregon State Sen. Lew Frederick is a critic of online charter schools and a former member of the state Board of Education.  – PMG file photo

Colorado’s situation

According to the National Center for Education Statistics, Colorado, with a population of 5.7 million, featured 24 schools that were completely online in 2019-20. More than 11,000 students were enrolled, or 1.2% of the state’s total enrollment.

Oregon, population 4.3 million, had 11 fully virtual schools, and about 7,500 students enrolled, or 1.3% of the overall student body.

Kottenstette said he suspects that ,if Colorado has a more diverse student body in its online charters, it’s because the system there has been in place for 20 years, making online schools a more well-known and accepted part of the education establishment.

“My theory is that it’s just kind of evolved over time, as online has become a more common model,” he said. In Oregon, the first online charter was formed in 2005.

Kottenstette’s perception is substantiated by Colorado state statistics. That state, too, had a disproportionately white student body in online schools until about 2015, when minority representation in online schools began to match, then outstrip, their brick-and-mortar counterparts.

The Colorado state numbers don’t reflect as big a difference as Mann found in his review of National Center of Education Statistics from 2015-16. He said this may be because Colorado’s method of tracking does not differentiate between online schools run by districts versus those operated as independent charters.

“I looked at online charter schools, not all online schools,” Mann said. “There is a major difference there.”

Michael Barbour, a professor at  Touro University in California, agrees with Kottenstette that diversity in Colorado online schools reflects a national trend.

“Some jurisdictions are much more mature than others and those tend to be more diverse in population, because people are just more familiar with them,” he said.

Kottenstette noted that some statewide online charter schools in Colorado have been particularly successful in drawing a diverse student body, including one known as GOAL High School, with more than 5,000 students.

It’s an alternate school that is required by Kottenstette’s department to focus on at-risk students. In fact, 90% of its students are required to meet one of 15 “at-risk” criteria, according to GOAL spokesman Gunnison Pagnotta.

Those include social anxiety, depression, exposure to racism or bullying, having to hold down a job while also in school, or poor attendance in brick-and-mortar schools in the past.

“Many of them check a lot of those boxes, as far as dependency issues or students who have gang affiliation or drug use within the family,” Pagnotta said. “That’s part of our charter.”

He said GOAL’s “blended online” model, with 36 in-person help centers spread around the state, intends to give hope and help to student who might otherwise not finish their high school degree. In fact, he says the model allows educators to better individualize programs for English-language learners and for student facing other challenges.

“It’s just a whole lot better alternative (than) adding to the dropout numbers,” said Pagnotta, who spent 24 years teaching in a brick-and-mortar school. “It surprises me that there wouldn’t be more diversity (in online schools) in every state.”

Barbour, who is critical of online charter schools in general, said online schools can be targeted to students from less affluent families, students who haven’t done well in traditional schools, or to students of color. But he said they may or may not be effective, and a profit motive can be involved.

“There are some really great examples of online learning cyber charters being used to serve a specific population of students that are not being served by the traditional brick and mortar environment,” he said. “There are also examples where you have companies that are targeting students, simply because … their parents might not be as engaged in the learning process,” he added. “If I’m looking to increase my enrollment as a virtual school operator, particularly a for-profit one, I look at a student like that and I see a student that isn’t going to create a lot of work for me.”

In Colorado, several public school districts, as well as the state, have taken action against online charters. In a 2015 national conference held in Boulder, Colorado, advocates noted that some online schools targeting dropouts were set up by for-profit companies, only to be shut down for not meeting standards.

Oregon model

In Oregon, online public charters don’t seem to focus on families of color in their marketing — which may not be surprising: Oregon remains a majority-white state, and rules set a cap on online charter enrollment at 3% of the chartering district’s total enrollment.

Many of the online charter schools in Oregon are set-up as non-profits that affiliate with one of two national for-profit online school companies, Connections Academy and K12, which recently renamed itself Stride Inc.

Rather than vetting online charters and mandating that some charters require support for at-risk kids, as Colorado Department of Education does, the Oregon Department of Education tends to leave oversight of online charters to the public school district holding their contract.

In fact, the state of Oregon devotes one full-time person to charter schools, both online and not, as compared to the eight-person unit overseen by Kottenstette in Colorado.

In Colorado, two full-time people are devoted to overseeing online charters, in addition to half of another position, Kottenstette said.

“Colorado is definitely among the states where there’s a more active department of education relative to online and hybrid learning in the state,” said John Watson, of Evergreen Education Group, a Colorado-based consultant who is prominent nationally, and works with online charter school learning companies such as Connections Academy and K12.

He said some schools don’t necessarily think that’s a good thing, but “It’s very clear that the State Department and the State Board of Education have a much better handle on what hybrid and online learning is happening in Colorado than in most other states.”

Watson, who communicates frequently with Barbour, and who Mann cites as an expert on Colorado schools, says the hybrid and blended models used by schools like GOAL do tend to be well-suited for some students. He said Colorado’s department of education has been “fairly flexible” and more welcoming to the hybrid model than some other states.

“I wish these schools existed when I was in high school,” he said. “I have a nephew who basically dropped out of high school and then went back into one of these programs. And he’s a super smart kid who was bored to tears by traditional high school. It’s a really good model.”

Watson said a hybrid model is likely to be suited to a wider population of students than a full-time online school.

The question that he and many other experts raise, is: how do public schools and parents determine which individual students are well-suited to instruction that is all or partially delivered online?

Kottenstette said his office is analyzing learning outcomes during the pandemic to try to get some of those answers. “That’s an area where we will likely see evolving policy,” he said.

Mann is part of a research group that recently completed a study of online learning, concluding that students who are male or who come from disadvantaged backgrounds are more likely to struggle when learning online.

Watson said this sort of information is important, and that online schools, school districts and others should do more to make sure students and parents are equipped with this data.

He said people should be “getting more information out about what an online school is like to the students who are going in, so they’re not making choices that don’t work out so well for themselves.”

“It’s not to anybody’s advantage to have a student go try an online school … realize it was a terrible fit, and then leave,” he said. “How do we encourage students and families to better understand what the realities at that school are, so they can make better choices?”