Eye on Education

Online Schools Spend Millions on Advertising to Recruit New Students

Two Ohio online schools recently bought Google ads that appear when people search for "free computer for school."

In the stories on online education we wrote with the Cleveland Plain Dealer earlier this year, we looked at the huge growth in online charter schools and one of the big questions about those schools: Where does the money go?

We found it’s possible to run an online school for about $3,600 per student. But Ohio pays online charter schools about $6,300 per student. So what happens to the rest of the money?

At some schools, a chunk of that money goes towards recruiting new students.

Ten of the largest for-profit operators of online schools spent an estimated $94.4 million on ads to attract new students over the past five years, USA Today reports.

K12 Inc., one of the nation’s largest online school operators and also the operator of Ohio’s second largest online school, spent about $21.5 million on advertising in just the first eight months of 2012, USA Today reports. That’s an estimate from Kantar Media, a New York-based provider of “media and marketing intelligence.” K12 Inc. wouldn’t tell USA Today if the number was accurate.

While K12 Inc’s Ohio Virtual Academy itself is a nonprofit organization, the school pays K12 Inc. about two-thirds of the school’s public funding to run the school. That amounted to more than $40 million in 2010-11.

If the estimates from USA Today are accurate, they mean K12 Inc. spends about 5 percent of its public per-pupil funding on advertising.

Ohio Virtual Academy and other charter schools say they need to spend money on advertising to make parents and students aware of their schools. Critics say said that online schools like Ohio Virtual Academy place too much emphasis — and spend too much money — on recruiting new students rather than on helping students learn.

K12 Inc. isn’t the only online charter school that spends money on advertising. We’ve seen online ads for most of Ohio’s online schools.

OHDELA is one of several online charter schools that advertise on Facebook.

Ohio Distance and Electronic Learning Academy, which is operated by for-profit company White Hat Management, is one of several online charter schools that advertise on Facebook. OHDELA banner ads show up on sites for students seeking help coping with depression too.

Connections Academy, which is operated by for-profit international education conglomerate Pearson, bought Google ads that show up next to a search for “bullied at school.”

ECOT bought a Google Adwords ad for the term "virtual school."

The Electronic Classroom of Tomorrow, which has close financial ties to for-profit companies owned by the school’s founder, has bought ads that show up with searches such as “virtual school.”

We have not seen many ads for the online charter schools that are operated independently or by not-for-profit organizations such as school districts.


  • http://www.facebook.com/RedBaron96 Shari Armstrong

    Our family has two children in OHVA, one in 6th grade and one in 2nd grade, and one future student. I have no doubt that our children are getting a quality education, as both are testing way above grade level in everything. Both have access to quality curriculum that is challenging, allowing them to learn at their own pace and in a way that is best for each of them.

    I wish people would stop worrying about the “for profit” company that is providing the school’s curriculum. The public school gives money to “for profit” companies all the time, when they order their text books and supplies. Those things aren’t donated.

    The fact remains that e-schools work, and work well. They let kids who are advanced to be challenged, and kids that need extra help to get it. Too many kids at both ends of the spectrum are falling through the cracks and either aren’t challenged enough or not getting the help they need. The current education model in most schools doesn’t work for all students. We need to make sure EVERY child gets the education they deserve.

    If the spending of money on advertising allows more families to get their children the education they deserve, then more power to them. People need to know there is a choice out there beyond the local district that may not provide the right learning environment for their child. When we mention what we do, many people have never heard of it.

  • http://www.K12choice.com Jeff Kwitowski


    the districts that say they are running FT online schools for $3,600 are not accounting for the shared in-district costs of personnel, facilities, etc. Add those costs in and the figure increases. Standalone online schools (whether state-run school or v-charters) have to bear 100% of the costs to run a full-time public school. furthermore, these schools receive between 30-50% less in total funding per FTE than traditional schools receive for the same student. Secondly, in-district online schools typically do not serve students from multiple districts (unlike online charters) and therefore don’t advertise to families across the state.

    States typically do not promote or advertise alternative public school options. They leave that responsibility to the individual schools. All families should be made aware of the public school options that are available to them, regardless of where they live (urban, suburban or rural areas). Having met many of them, I can tell you first-hand how grateful they are that these schools advertise, host information sessions in communities across the state so they can meet other families, talk to teachers and school representatives to make an informed decision about what they believe is best for their child.

    It baffles me why some are so prickly about giving parents choices in public education, preferring instead to let zip codes and district boundaries determine where children go to school. Ultimately, this issue should be viewed through the prism of choice: Give parents the freedom to choose the school they feel is best for their child. And respect their choice.

    • M_Bloom

      Hi Jeff: A question about your comment re: the costs of an online school. You wrote “The districts that say they are running FT online schools for $3,600 are not accounting for the shared in-district costs of personnel, facilities, etc. Add those costs in and the figure increases.”

      Of the rest of the ~$3,500 in revenue Ohio statewide online charter schools receive, how much goes to admin costs (personnel/facilities)?

      • http://www.K12choice.com Jeff Kwitowski

        Thanks for the reply, Molly.
        Every school and program is different, so admin costs would vary, just like they would between different brick and mortar schools and school districts. Ohio’s Leg Cmte on Ed Oversight report in 2005 gave a breakdown and showed FT eSchools receiving about 36% less than traditional schools,with average of 16% going to admin. the report concluded costs were “reasonable.” iNACOL and other organizations/researchers that have looked into funding and costs show average costs for FT online schools around $6500, significantly less than traditional schools spend (nationally, schools spend over $10K per student). Keeping Pace with K-12 Online Learning report highlights iNACOL’s breakdown of typical costs for FT multi-district online charter schools and shows admin at about 15% (teachers highest single cost category, followed by technology, and then curriculum)

  • Cynthia Williams

    I’m grateful for the ads. I’m one of those parents who never would have known about this choice for my family if I hadn’t seen an ad for what is now our eschool. I thought that my zip code determined what traditional public school district my kids went to and that was that – whether that school did a good job educating my kids or not. Then I saw an ad and realized we had a choice and it changed everything!!! I couldn’t be happier with the results we’ve been getting. I have been using one of the virtual schools mentioned in this article for the last 11 years to educate both of my daughters. One is currently in the fifth grade and doing well loving her online education. My older daughter graduated from the virtual academy in 2011 and is in her second year at college and looks like she will continue to make the deans list her sophmore year just as she did all of her freshman year. The virtual school more than adequately prepared her for her post secondary career. I’ve NEVER ONCE felt that our online school was putting profit ahead of my child’s education. If I did, we’d no longer be going there and wouldn’t of stayed for so long. I also tire of hearing the “for profit” ramblings of the press! Find a real education story PLEASE!

    • Nicole

      This is a real education story. Good schools are losing hundreds of thousands of dollars a year to e-schools that consistently receive ‘F’ rankings. While it’s great that your children are doing well, they are in the minority and do not make for a statistically significant analysis.

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