Public and Charter School Partnerships

At CRHE, we view homeschooling as a big tent movement that includes a lot of different methods, programs, and options—including public and charter school programs that serve students learning at home. A growing number of public and charter school / homeschool partnerships are making enrichments, curriculum, and educational reimbursements available to families educating their children at home. 

In public and charter school partnerships: 

  • Students are legally considered public or charter school students
  • Some programs provide a full virtual curriculum,  while others allow parents to select and implement their own curriculum 
  • Because they receive public funds, programs are typically responsible for assessing students’ academic progress
  • Families typically have access to public or charter school classes, extracurriculars, and enrichments 
  • These programs receive public funding; enrollment is typically free and curriculum purchases are reimbursed 

For decades, some homeschooled students have used independent study programs through their local public schools; more recently, charter schools and online learning programs have increased the number of options available to homeschooling families. While the level of involvement these programs offer varies, their distinctive factor is their use of public funds to support at-home learning. Public and charter school programs may be a good fit for homeschooling families that want support and guidance from professional educators, as well as access to publicly funded curriculum, classes, and enrichments. 

What Benefits Do These Programs Offer?

A home educator in California wrote to us describing the benefits that her family has received through enrollment in homeschool charter school programs: 

I have personally had children enrolled in 5 different programs in two different states, and believe there is a lot of potential in this type of education.

Advantages include the ability to tailor a child’s education to their needs by providing access to a wide variety of resources including traditional curriculum, online classes, private tutoring, school-based classes (usually 1-3 days per week), and extracurriculars. For example, my twelve year old currently takes dance and tumbling classes, lessons from a private Chinese tutor, an online study skills class, online math program plus a textbook program, and online language arts program. Most of this would not be financially feasible for me without the availability of charter school funds. In exchange we provide weekly work samples to the school and participate in yearly testing. My younger son and daughter both also benefit from speech therapy through the school.

Homeschooling is a big endeavor. Public and charter school programs can offer parents access to individual classes and enrichments, reimbursement for educational expenses such as curriculum, and a relationship with a teacher who can answer questions. These resources can go a long way toward providing a parent with the support they need to make their child’s homeschooling experience successful. 

Are There Any Reasons for Concern?

If you are considering a public or charter school / homeschool partnership for your family, you should keep two key ideas in mind First, students do not learn effectively from academic programs that consist entirely of reading or watching material and then regurgitating it on worksheets or quizzes. Second, parent involvement in homeschooled students’ education is crucial, and there are no shortcuts to achieving this. Some parents may assume that a virtual charter program will solve problems their child was having in school, and that all they need to do is put their child in front of a computer in order to create learning. This could not be further from the truth.

The research on online education indicates that it is not a good substitute for in-person learning. A 2019 study by Stanford’s Center for Research on Education Outcomes found that students enrolled in online charter schools showed weaker growth than demographically matched peers who remained in public schools. In fact, a 2019 report on virtual schools by the National Education Policy Center at the University of Colorado-Boulder found such dismal results that researchers called for a wholesale pause on virtual schools “until the reasons for their relatively poor performance have been identified and addressed.” As a general rule, virtual schools have terrible learning outcomes, abysmal retention, and rock bottom graduation rates

One possible note of optimism: the 2019 National Education Policy Center report referenced above found that district-operated virtual schools had better results than either for-profit or non-profit virtual charter programs. While the reasons for this are unclear, one hypothesis is that district-operated programs offer more opportunities for in-person interaction or connection than other programs; another possible factor may be the lack of the for-profit financial motive that undergirds many virtual charter schools.

How Can I Evaluate These Programs?

Home educators interested in public or charter school programs should remember several things. First, students learn best through active interaction with instructors and peers, not through passively taking in information. As a general rule, you should stay away from programs that are fully online and offer only asynchronous instruction. 

Synchronous learning involves real-time interaction with an instructor and classmates. Online or virtual programs involve synchronous learning when there are scheduled class meetings via Zoom or a similar program. 

Asynchronous learning takes place without real-time interaction, such as when a student reads content on a screen, watches a recorded educational video, and answers questions via a computer on their own time.

There are many public and charter school programs available for families interested in at-home learning that allow parents to combine parent-driven homeschooling with the support and resources of a publicly funded program and an assigned teacher. These programs may allow parents to choose and implement their own curriculum, or they may allow parents to mix and match between online classes, in-person classes, and “independent study” courses using curriculum curated by the parent. These options will almost always be better than a full-time online asynchronous virtual learning program.

Second, many online or virtual charter programs are run by for-profit companies, and may engage in false advertising or fraud. In some cases, for-profit virtual charter schools have gotten into trouble for collecting thousands of dollars per pupil in state education funding while providing enrolled students with only a few hundred dollars’ worth of curriculum reimbursements or computer technology, and no other amenities. If a charter school program receives the state’s per-pupil allowance and does not provide that same level of value to the families it enrolls, you should be suspicious about where the money is going. 

Always be wary of claims that seem too good to be true. Some programs may claim to be elite STEM academies, based on little or no educational substance. Programs can also be transitory, opening and closing with stunning speed and leaving parents out in the cold. You should always find out as much as you can about a program before enrolling your children in it, including who its funders are, how much it receives in public funding per pupil, what its graduation and retention rates are, how long it has been in operation, and whether it has an accreditation from the state or an accrediting agency. 

What Are the Different Kinds of Programs Available?

Because the programs available vary by state and by school district—and change frequently—we provide here only a general overall summary of the kinds of programs that may be available to you. To find out what specific options are available to your family, you should contact your local school district or check your state department of education website. The summaries offered here should guide you in your search.

Online public school: Online or “virtual” programs are offered by school districts, charter schools, and state education agencies, and typically allow students to complete school from home via a computer. Online public school programs frequently contract with for-profit curriculum providers such as K12 or Connections Academy, offer a set educational program, delivered virtually, and rely on asynchronous learning. CRHE does not believe this option has the ability to meet most students’ needs. If you choose this option, you should be prepared to actively engage with your child and should not assume that the program will provide all of the instruction your child needs.

Remote learning: Many school districts launched “remote learning” programs during the COVID-19 pandemic. These programs often involve synchronous learning—live instruction time with an instructor and classmates—and are in some ways more similar to in-person schooling than to the asynchronous online public school programs discussed above. Some school districts may continue these programs as an option for students even after the pandemic, although others likely will not. While these programs probably have better outcomes than fully asynchronous online programs (research on this is still forthcoming), they still do not offer the same level of interaction possible in in-person classrooms.

Flexible partnerships: In recent years, public and charter schools have increasingly offered programs that look more like autonomous homeschooling—they allow parents to select curricular materials and deliver instruction, but provide a rich array of options to support students’ education. These programs give students access to individual classes, athletics programs, and other extracurriculars, and give parents access to educational reimbursements for curriculum, tutoring, and other expenses, along with access to teachers and guidance counselors who can answer questions and provide support. The key is that neither the parents nor the public or charter school relies on a prepackaged online program; instead, both parties recognize that education is interactive, interpersonal, and based as much on experiences as information. 

Hybrid learning: These programs combine in-person learning experiences with virtual instruction. Students typically attend a brick-and-mortar school for 1-3 days per week and participate in online learning at home on the remaining days. These programs are most commonly offered by charter schools, although during the COVID-19 pandemic, some public schools have begun offering these programs as well. These programs combine in-person interaction with the flexibility of online or virtual learning at home, and may be a good fit for some students and some families.

Who offers these programs?

The thread that ties all of these programs together is their use of public funding to support learning that takes place in the home. Because of their use of public funds, these programs are provided by public or charter schools, and not by private schools.

School districts: Some school districts have programs that provide families with access to learning centers and reimbursements for educational expenses, while allowing parents to choose and implement their own curriculum. These programs frequently also grant students access to individual public school classes (either in-person or virtually) and enrichments such as band, athletics programs, or tutoring. In some cases, this may be called “independent study.” These programs can offer parents both the flexibility to homeschool in a way that works for their family and access to support and funding. These programs require a high level of parental involvement and should not be seen as a replacement for putting in the work of homeschooling. 

Charter schools: While “virtual” or “cyber” charters typically offer full-time online programs—and generally have negative outcomes—other charter schools offer home educators more flexibility, including the ability to choose and implement their own curriculum and be reimbursed for educational expenses. In some cases, charter schools with a physical campus may offer a homeschool option; in other cases, charter schools may exist for the sole purpose of serving homeschooled students. Some charter school programs allow parents to mix and match, choosing between online courses, in-person classes, and independent study for different subjects and children. 

State-licensed virtual schools: Many states have licensed a statewide virtual school, or a list of statewide virtual schools. These programs frequently use virtual curriculum provided by for-profit companies like K12 or Connections Academy. CRHE does not believe this option has the ability to meet most students’ needs. However, some programs allow parents to choose between full-time enrollment and enrolling their children in individual classes; some families may find individual virtual courses a useful supplement to their homeschool. In addition, some state-licensed virtual programs are run by state universities; while you should still be discerning, these programs likely have better results than virtual programs run by for-profit charter schools. 

What Do You Mean By “Partnership”? 

We refer to public and charter school programs that serve home-educated students as “partnership” programs because you should not approach them as a replacement for the effort of homeschooling. These programs will not serve your child’s educational needs independent of your involvement. If you choose one of these options, you are partnering with a program in order to gain access to things you might otherwise struggle to provide or access—certain extracurriculars, the financial basis to afford tutoring or private lessons, and professionals who can serve as a sounding board—while also recognizing your own responsibility for educating your child

Don’t forget to read the other articles in this section!

Homeschool Resources & Support
— Public and Charter School Partnerships
Access to School District Resources
Joining a Homeschooling Group
Homeschool Umbrella Schools
Drawing on Local Resources

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