March 7, 2012; Source: Education Week

According to a regular Education Week K-12 innovation column funded by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, big foundations are promoting the support of “hybrid charter school models.”  Due to “financial stresses,” charter schools are shifting from brick-and-mortar schools into something different: not full-time virtual schooling, but a blend of classroom and online methods. Unlike the charter schools that are all online, like the Western Pennsylvania Cyber Charter School where Rick and Karen Santorum enrolled their five children, the sentiment of educational experts is that blended models will be subject to less criticism.

The Gates Foundation has just given five $150,000 grants to model hybrid charter schools in East San Jose, Oakland, Los Angeles, Chicago, and Newark, with plans for additional grants plus $300,000 in additional matching funds for the five hybrid grantees. The Michael & Susan Dell Foundation has made five more $200,000 grants to hybrid schools with the intention of examining the results after a one-year period. As research, there are problems. Dell, for example, doesn’t plan to announce which schools got the hybrid grants until later in the spring, after the case studies are released.


The subtext of the Gates and Dell grants is to backfill needed research on the efficacy of the hybrid model both funders and the charter school movement seem to believe is necessary. The shift to hybrid brick-and-mortar and online charters is “for reasons beyond increasing education quality,” Ed Week says. Now the movement has to explain how these hybrids maintain the track records of successful brick-and-mortar charter schools.


The experience so far, pre-research, according to one expert is, “Some blended-learning models are great and some are pretty bad.” If charters are going to be able to adapt to financial pressures and utilize hybrid models—and attract foundation and other donor investment—they will have to find “a bunch of proof points in the marketplace to really get people excited about it.” The Gates and Dell grants are, in some ways, efforts to generate positive proof points.


The hybrid model is expanding quickly. A Palo Alto charter management organization, Rocketship Education, has gotten five K-5 hybrid charters going (one thanks to one of the five Gates grants). With three Rocketship schools ranking in the top 10 schools serving low income students in Santa Clara County, the county board of education has approved a plan for an additional 20 hybrids. Financial pressures on charter schools may be driving the move to more online programming, but foundations are working to make the case to justify hybrid charter schools for public policy acceptance and endorsement.—Rick Cohen