By: Nate Davis
The Bond Between Charter Schools and Digital Learning first appeared on ThinkTank¹²
In 1992, the first charter school was introduced and the concept of public school choice in American education was born. Today, over 2.5 million students attend more than 6,400 charter schools in 42 states and the District of Columbia.
In the late 90’s, just as charter schools were about to experience a period of tremendous growth, a new educational innovation began to take root: digital learning.
Over the last decade, a strong nexus emerged between digital learning and charter schools. In charter schools, digital learning found environments that nurtured creativity and innovation. Through digital learning, charter schools were able to provide families from every demographic more options, access, and choice in public education.
Charter schools became the primary vehicle for the advancement of digital learning, and naturally so. One of the cornerstones of charter schools was to invite education advancements by giving educators greater flexibility and autonomy to pioneer new educational programs. The goal was to allow charter schools to test and develop new models that could be replicated by other public schools and districts – a kind of education “skunkworks.”
The first online charter schools – totally digital learning environments – emerged in the early 2000’s when Pennsylvania became the first state to allow online charter schools. Soon after, many other states began to follow. Charters offering blended learning (combining digital and face-to-face instruction) quickly followed, providing a wide range of exciting and differentiated instructional models. These online and blended charter schools scaled quickly to meet demand from parents, and ran head on into the status quo. Conventional educational norms were challenged. Debate shifted from simply trying to find ways to tinker with the traditional model to wholly re-thinking how technology could disrupt the way education is delivered and consumed for the better.
Traditional charter schools – demonstrating their relentless desire to progress – adopted best practices from online and blended charters and began offering digital learning to expand programs and increase capacity. School districts quickly took notice. They saw the heightened interest from students and parents in online and blended charter schools, and began to replicate similar programs. In other words, the concept of empowering charter schools to be models of innovation and catalysts of education reform worked. Today, there are an estimated 2 million course enrollments in K-12 school districts across the U.S.
The other primary goal of charter schools was to expand parent choice in education. Most of the early charter schools in the U.S. were centered in low-income, urban areas to serve students trapped in chronically failing schools. These alternative public schools became life-savers for many families. Yet, these traditional, brick-and-mortar charter schools were still limited. For families in non-urban areas where charter schools were not located, accessing public school options was impossible. Public school choice simply did not exist. And where traditional charters were present, they were limited in the number of students they could serve. Demand often exceeded supply, which led to enrollment caps, lotteries, and waiting lists – a side effect that anguishes all charter school operators and supporters.
Those constraints began to break down with the introduction of statewide online charter schools. Online charter schools serve families anywhere throughout a state. They are able to scale to meet demand, free from the barriers of a traditional classroom model. They bring school to the student, connecting teachers and educators to children and parents through technology. Today, tens of thousands of students are enrolled in full-time online charter schools in more than half of the states in America. In many cases online schools are the largest charters in the state.
The introduction of online charter schools meant that for the first time, every family in a state, whether they lived in an urban, suburban, or rural community – and regardless of their socioeconomic status – had access to public schools of choice.
This was no small change. Talk to parents with children enrolled in public schools of choice. They will tell you just how much having the freedom to choose matters to them. If expanding education choice to as many American families as possible is the game changer, then charter schools and digital learning are the co-MVPs.
They laid the groundwork for new education reforms. Policymakers and educators began looking for ways to increase digital learning experiences for students. Some states began advocating that all students participate in online courses as a requirement prior to graduating. Still other states rolled out new “course choice” programs (e.g. Utah and Louisiana) designed to increase opportunities by granting students the freedom to choose digital courses offered through other schools and providers. National efforts, such as Digital Learning Now, were launched to find bipartisan solutions to foster high-quality, customized education opportunities for all students through technology-based learning. Last year, over 450 pieces of legislation related to digital learning were introduced in state capitols across the country.
All of this energy was a direct response to the growing recognition that all students must be prepared to learn, train, and work in a digital world where technology touches, and revolutionizes, everything. Today, it is commonplace for employers to use online learning for training and employee development. Higher education continues to rapidly embrace and expand digital learning programs.
Educators know providing digital learning experiences to children at the elementary and high school levels gives them a leg up and tremendous confidence and ability to succeed in the future. This has profound and positive economic implications, particularly as America’s diverse student populations enter a highly competitive and global workforce.
The bond between charter schools and digital learning is one of the great stories in American education reform. The partnership of these two powerful forces has already benefited countless numbers of students, parents, teachers, and the entire U.S. education system. And it’s only getting started.
Nate Davis, CEO and Chairman of the Board of K¹², is a seasoned leader of transformational telecommunications, media and software development companies, with a record of improving operations, launching innovative new products and strengthening relationships with legislative and regulatory authorities.
K¹² Inc is a Getting Smart Advocacy Partner.