A free day at the aquarium! For Marcey Morse, a mother of two, it sounded pretty good.
It was the fall of 2016, and Morse had received an email offering tickets, along with a warning about her children's education.
At that time, Morse's two kids were enrolled in an online, or "virtual," school called the Georgia Cyber Academy, run by a company called K12 Inc. About 275,000 students around the country attend these online public charter schools, run by for-profit companies, at taxpayers' expense.
The aquarium wouldn't be something they could ordinarily afford. So Morse, her husband, a friend and their children took the day off and drove downtown to an Atlanta hotel for what was billed as a "day of fun at the aquarium and learning how to best protect our kids and their educational options."
But what happened, she says, was very different. "They were trying to usher us, step by step, in kind of a sneaky way, into a protest," she says. "It was a trick. A basic, classic hustle."
The meeting she'd been invited to was sponsored by a group called Expose Liberal Charter School Turncoats, or ELECT.
At the same time, not coincidentally, another charter school group was holding its annual meeting in the same hotel. The National Association of Charter School Authorizers, or NACSA, represents state governments and others who oversee charter schools in the U.S. Most of those are brick-and-mortar schools that now enroll about 3 million students.
At her meeting, Morse recalls, "first, they said, 'we're going to have a poster contest.' Have the kids break out and make posters about why they love charter schools." The prize was a Kindle.
"Then, they pulled out the T-shirts and said, 'Hey, we have free T-shirts, you can put this on if you want.' "
The word TURNCOAT on the back of the shirts raised an alarm bell. "That's not just a political term, it's an old one," Morse says. She pulled out her phone and started looking up ELECT.
In the meantime, a speaker in the front of the room was trying to "get everybody riled up," she says, with a call and response: " 'Do you want your choice taken away? NO! Do you want freedom to choose? Yes!' "
Some parents and children did put on the T-shirts, and carried the signs toward the lobby where NACSA attendees were having lunch. According to a press release put out by ELECT on Oct. 26, "NACSA staff ordered hotel security to force the parents and children out into the street and then threatened to arrest them for trespassing."
NACSA's president and CEO, Greg Richmond, says hotel staff alerted them that an opposition group had reserved a room in the hotel, and asked them to leave to avoid a disruption. But no police were called to his knowledge, or arrests made. "Crazy stuff," he calls it.
After voicing her complaints about being tricked, Morse took her children home, without the aquarium tickets. She later called NACSA to apologize for what her family had been drawn into. Even though she's a virtual school parent herself, she didn't appreciate her family being used to make a political point: "I was so mad."
Marcey Morse had unwittingly found herself smack in the middle of a costly and bitter feud, pitting state authorities and mainstream charter school organizations on the one side, and virtual schools on the other. The latter have the support of Education Secretary Betsy DeVos and some state-level politicians.
Unlike for the rest of the nation's charter school students, virtual schools take place entirely online. The students are generally at home, on laptops, reading material, doing exercises, taking tests. The teachers are reachable by online chat, video conference and telephone. No after-school programs, no uniforms, no school nurse, no playground, no buildings at all. The only supervision comes from parents.
The main issue at stake in the fight is this: Virtual schools' test scores and graduation rates have, consistently, been very low. So low that their performance, along with, at times, disputes over attendance, have led them to be shut down or placed at risk of closure in states including Colorado, Indiana, Minnesota, Nevada, Ohio, Oklahoma, South Carolina and Tennessee.
The travails of virtual schools have split the charter school movement. The national organizations representing traditional charter schools have sought to put daylight between themselves and virtual schools, going so far as to question "whether virtual schools should be included in the charter school model at all," in the words of NACSA.
With states and even other charter schools massed against them, virtual schools and their supporters have fought back. They've lobbied politicians and donated millions to their campaigns. They've pushed for changes and exceptions to accountability systems. They've taken legal action.
And, they've organized a network of lobbying groups to make it appear that parents don't care about test scores — that test scores and other accountability measures actually don't matter at all. What matters, they say, is parent choice. This message is summed up in a phrase that has also often been a rallying cry of DeVos. It lives online as a hashtag: #ITrustParents.
At times, their opponents say, virtual schools have resorted to "smear tactics," using parents as cover. Like that "day of fun and learning" Marcey Morse got invited to in Atlanta.
Let's take a closer look at some of the players in this ongoing drama.
The virtual schools industry
K12 Inc. is the largest operator of virtual charter schools, with 111,000 students. Connections Academy, the second largest, says it has 65,000 students.
K12 was co-founded in 1999, with an investment from "junk bond" financier Michael Milken and his brother. The founding chair of the board, William Bennett, who served as education secretary under President Ronald Reagan, resigned in 2005 after making racist remarks. In the early 2010s, the company settled multiple shareholder lawsuits based on its poor student and financial performance.
Betsy DeVos and her husband, Dick DeVos, formerly owned stock in K12 Inc. In October, Kevin Chavous was hired as K12 Inc.'s president of academics, policy and schools. Chavous was a founding board member of the American Federation for Children, the organization DeVos chaired before joining the Trump administration.
Stuart Udell, the company's new CEO, joined in 2016. He previously worked at Catapult Learning, which consults in about 500 school districts, and before that, at the Princeton Review.
Udell tells NPR in an email interview that "K12 is always looking for innovative ways to improve academic outcomes."
For example, the company has recently launched a partnership with Southern New Hampshire University, one of the largest nonprofit online universities in the country. The idea is that SNHU will provide K12's teachers with customized professional education in the craft of online teaching.
Paul LeBlanc, the president of SNHU, says Udell has impressed him as being "passionate" about innovating and making online education better.
Udell says, "K12 is not satisfied with the academic results in every school, and we are actively and earnestly working to improve academic outcomes by investing in systems, curriculum and specific programs for all the schools and students we serve."
He underlines, however, that the company is, at the same time, trying to change how their schools are judged. "While we are working to serve students better and achieve better academic outcomes for all students, we are also working to improve state accountability systems to more fairly assess schools that serve students like the ones enrolled in many online schools."
Parents who use virtual schools say in surveys that what they most value is the option to learn at a time and place of their choosing. Many note that their children have not been successful in traditional schools. Online education can meet the needs of students with disabilities or chronic illness. It can allow flexibility for elite athletes or performers, or offer a safe haven for a student who is bullied.
Marcey Morse is not a fan of in-person public schools, and she'll tell you why: "Misbehavior, gangs, violence, drugs, sex, teachers who are way too distracted."
Each weekday, Morse's son, now 12, signs in on his home computer, watches videos or reads, and completes tests, papers and homework. (Her daughter, now 15, no longer uses the school.) Her son might be part of a class discussion in a chatroom or consult with a teacher by phone, but Morse considers herself her kids' main teacher. "I want a first-hand, direct influence on what they're learning," she says.
She likes that the kids can make their own schedule. And Morse, who is African-American, also prefers to see to it personally that her kids don't learn a "whitewashed" version of history.
She says the academics could be stronger, but Georgia Cyber Academy "fits what I need from them."
The low grades
That being said, in 2015, three independent research organizations collaborated to put out a "National Study of Online Charter Schools."
The results were dismal. They found that, with slight variations across states and types of students, those who enrolled in virtual schools were falling far behind. Those students "were losing the equivalent of something like 70 days of reading and 180 days of math," says Robin Lake, the director of the Center on Reinventing Public Education at the University of Washington Bothell, who oversaw the studies.
Udell, the CEO of K12 Inc., says his schools look bad because they're willing to take on many students who are struggling elsewhere. State accountability systems that rely too much on test scores at a point in time, he explains, don't capture the fact that online schools enroll "a large percentage of students who are at-risk or behind grade level at the time they enroll."
The research doesn't support that argument, Lake counters. Their studies controlled for the achievement levels of students when they come in, and even so, she adds, "it's really hard to explain away such poor results" in academic growth.
For another part of the study, Brian Gill, a senior fellow at Mathematica Policy Research, led a group that surveyed principals of virtual schools.
They found that virtual students have less real-time contact with their remote teachers in an entire week than traditional students do in one day. They spend just three to six hours, per week, in video, audio, screen-sharing or text chat contact with the teachers. Students are primarily left to work independently, with a parent's help if available.
And that's when the program is working as designed. In Ohio and Colorado, state authorities have raised concerns that students enrolled in virtual schools actually have very low rates of engagement with the software at all.
Asked whether, along with providing more professional development, they would consider increasing teacher contact hours, Udell responded, "K12 is always looking for innovative ways to improve academic outcomes."
The independent-study approach might work well for some students with good self-direction and good guidance, says Gill, but less so for students who are struggling. And it's exactly those struggling students who, K12's Udell says, are choosing his company's online schools.
Another concern, Gill says, is that the student-teacher ratio at online charters is about 30 to 1: higher than the average in most charter schools in most states. Udell says K12 Inc. follows state laws when it comes to student-teacher ratio.
Mainstream charter groups
The beef between mainstream charters and virtual schools goes back to 2015, when that national report was released.
NACSA issued a statement calling for many virtual schools to be closed. And the group suggested that virtual schools should have more limits on the types of students they can accept. Other groups, like the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools, have since joined NACSA in similar statements. "We could have been much harsher," NACSA's CEO, Greg Richmond, says now. "But they reacted very aggressively against that."
NACSA is made up of the authorities that oversee charter schools in various states. NACSA members may work in school districts or state boards of education, but the mission they share, says Richmond, is making sure "kids have good schools to go to and taxpayer money is being spent appropriately." But, he says, "the virtual school lobby is opposing that work in many, many places."
After NACSA and the National Alliance for Public Charter School spoke out against virtual schools in summer 2016, a new group — Expose Liberal Charter Turncoats, or ELECT — started attacking them on social media, Richmond says.
"It was all about how liberal we are, and how we are supported by the 'liberal' Gates Foundation and the 'liberal' Walton Family Foundation." Both foundations are nonpartisan by law; both support charter schools, which have been a bipartisan issue. (Both support NPR's coverage, including of education.)
NACSA sees itself as politically independent. Its board of directors includes Republicans like Hanna Skandera (who has worked for Jeb Bush, Calif. Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger and in the George W. Bush administration), and Rick Hess, of the conservative American Enterprise Institute.
"It just became clear to us that it was just a smear campaign," Richmond says.
For-profit school companies like K12 Inc. don't have overt ties to virtual school lobby groups. The law doesn't require these groups to disclose their donors. But there are clues.
The president of ELECT is a man named Dan Curry. He also heads a Chicago-area public relations firm. According to his LinkedIn profile, "Delos Communications, LLC (formerly Reverse Spin, LLC) can assist you in tearing down barriers to getting your message through the dense news media filter."
Moreover, the profile continues, that goal can be achieved while the client remains in the background: "Our approach allows an organization, entity or individual to be progressive and proactive while maintaining a distance from the effort that is getting positive results on its behalf." Reverse Spin's website has the tagline: "the experts are idiots."
Curry tells NPR there is no connection between his career as a media relations professional — one specializing in "maintaining a distance" from his clients, as his LinkedIn profile reads — and his position as the leader of ELECT.
"My firm does not work for this organization," Curry told NPR about his work with ELECT. "In my individual capacity, I am a board member because I believe in the mission."
In 2016, ELECT's tax forms listed $88,000 paid to unspecified independent contractors. Dan Curry was listed as receiving $4,000 in compensation as board chair.
Curry said of that day at the Westin: "Many parents participated and had a great time. I know because I greeted everyone at the conclusion of the event. And many were angry that there are people like NACSA working hard to close down charter schools."
Asked via email whether the parents expressed satisfaction with the event before or after they were threatened with arrest, as described in his press release, Curry called NPR's line of questioning "bizarre" and "insane." He did not respond to repeated requests to put anyone else from ELECT, or any parent who participated in the Westin event, in touch with NPR.
Public School Options
There is a much bigger lobbying group for virtual schools, known as Public School Options.
Its web site says, "PSO fights back against threats to public school options, advocates for adequate and equitable funding, and dispels myths about innovative public schools." They say they have chapters or on-the-ground operations in 31 states.
Founded in 2008, the organization lists a $2.15 million annual budget from contributions on its 2015 public tax forms.
"We receive support from a variety of donors who share our vision of empowering parents with more choices in education," Susan Hepworth, the communications director of Public School Options, said via email. She declined to specify whether any virtual schools companies were donors. Public School Options declined to make Hepworth or anyone else available for an interview.
PSO conducts lobbying days at state capitols and pursues legal actions on behalf of virtual schools. It flies parents and others from around the country to Washington, D.C., each year for an "advocacy boot camp" and lobby day in Congress. There, parents and advocates hear and reinforce the message that their choice is more important than schools' performance.
In a YouTube video of the most recent boot camp, Andrew Campanella, of the organization National School Choice Week, tells the crowd: "It's not about accountability, it's not about test scores. It's not about all the things the elites want you to hear about. It's about this: Parents support and want school choice because they want their children to be happy now and happy in the future."
Asked whether K12 Inc supports Public School Options and ELECT, Jessica Schuler, a spokeswoman for the company, told NPR: "K12 supports many organizations and charities that believe in expanding education options for families, however we do not comment on them. We do not contribute to the ELECT organization."
Norris Clark, a media relations professional who formerly worked as a contractor for Public School Options, did tell NPR that Public School Options "is affiliated with K12." Clark was president of the Public School Options chapter in New Jersey.
Besides intervening at the state level, ELECT, PSO and a network of other groups work nationally to advance that idea of parental choice. They use the hashtag #ITRUSTPARENTS on social media.
A group called "The Wisconsin Coalition of Virtual School Families" claims to have been "the first or among the first" to use that hashtag in early 2015. That's according to its public relations firm, Edge Messaging, which is generally aligned with Republican causes. "Several Wisconsin politicians use it on a regular basis now, as do many others around the country who support parental empowerment and choice in education," says Brian Fraley of Edge Messaging.
Since her appointment, DeVos has used the phrase many times in public statements and speeches.
In the opening statement of her confirmation hearing: "For me, it's simple: I trust parents." To the Council of the Great City Schools in March of last year: "My philosophy is simple: I trust parents." To the National Lieutenant Governor's Association, also last March, to the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools in June, and to Harvard's Kennedy School in September, to name just a few occasions.
PSO in South Carolina
In some states, the fight has moved beyond media campaigns and messaging. In South Carolina, PSO's former president was placed in a political position to try to help virtual schools.
Beth Purcell was the national president of Public School Options before she was appointed last fall to the board of the South Carolina Public Charter School District, which authorizes charter schools. Purcell did not respond to requests for an interview.
The virtual charter lobby spent a combined $1 million in lobbying and candidate donations in the state between 2010 and 2017, according to an analysis by the education news site The 74.
Three of South Carolina's virtual schools had test scores that put them in "breach," meaning at risk of closure. Two were run by K12 Inc. Last year, these three schools sought out a new authorizer, Erskine College, a small, financially struggling Christian college that has never authorized charter schools before.
"I think our general stance is that we are skeptical of schools that want to transfer from us because they're in trouble," Don McLaurin, the chair of the board of trustees of the South Carolina Public Charter School District, told NPR. Beth Purcell is now his co-board member.
At a public hearing on the matter in November, Kerry Levi, identified as a Public School Options member, said that virtual schools had been a lifeline for her son, who, she said, had eight brain surgeries in three years.
"Testing does not matter," she told the board. "I, as a parent, don't care about that. I want to make sure my child can attend school." An op-ed also by Levi currently appears on K12 Inc.'s web site.
At the meeting, Purcell voted to let the virtual schools leave for Erskine; the rest of the board voted to keep them in the district.