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Online Schools Spend Millions on Advertising to Recruit New Students

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Thursday, November 29, 2012 at 6:00 AM

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?

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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.

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