The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Enrollment in virtual schools is exploding. Will students stay long term?

D.C.'s only fully virtual charter school saw an enrollment spike. So did schools across the country.

Kiara Childs, left, with her daughter, Peyton, as she does schoolwork for Friendship Online Academy in Washington. (Bill O'Leary/The Washington Post)
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When it was time to enroll her daughter in kindergarten, Kiara Childs considered a few traditional public and charter schools in the District. But it was spring 2020, the early months of the pandemic, and she wasn’t sure which schools would be in-person and which would remain virtual that fall.

The Southwest Washington resident wasn’t ready for her daughter to return to a classroom, so she settled on Friendship Online Academy — the city’s only public all-virtual school.

And then Childs reenrolled her daughter for first grade.

In a year when the city’s traditional public school system experienced a slight dip in enrollment, Friendship’s online school saw a spike, propelled by families who felt it was unsafe to return to in-person schooling and others who thought virtual learning was a better fit for their children. Friendship’s enrollment grew from 354 students in the 2020-2021 academic year to 661 students this academic year — and school leaders say applications for the next school year indicate enrollment will grow even more.

“We don’t have enough of a handle on the virus yet for me to feel safe enough to go back in-person,” said Childs, who mostly works from home doing administrative work for a preschool. "And I like being part of her learning process and seeing her brain growing and seeing that ‘aha’ moment when she learns something.”

Across the country, enrollment in charter schools, which are publicly funded and privately operated schools, increased by 7 percent — around 240,000 more students — during the 2020-2021 academic year, according to a report from the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools, an advocacy organization. D.C.'s charter sector grew by about 1,200 students to 45,143 students this academic year. The school system’s enrollment shrunk by around 500 students to 49,389 students, according to the latest enrollment figures.

In many states, virtual charter schools drove the outsize growth in charter school enrollment, according to the report, even as the quality of them has come under scrutiny.

Oklahoma saw a 77 percent increase in its charter school population as more students enrolled in for-profit virtual charter schools, though some of that growth has tapered this academic year, according to local media reports. Oklahoma’s attorney general is investigating one of the virtual charter schools amid allegations that it stole taxpayer dollars intended for students.

North Carolina state lawmakers passed legislation lifting the enrollment cap on two statewide virtual charters. Enrollment at the charters, which performed below state averages before the pandemic on standardized tests, ballooned during the pandemic, growing by a couple thousand students.

On top of that, state education departments, including Florida’s, experienced massive enrollment upticks in their statewide virtual schools.

“We have 85 percent of our students re-enrolling next year. I do not see our enrollment going down,” said Marcia Simmons, head of school at North Carolina Virtual Academy, a statewide virtual charter school. “It will be interesting to see how many regular, traditional [school districts] keep their pandemic virtual programs and how that could affect our enrollment."

Charter advocates argue that the pandemic has highlighted that parents want more choice and say charter schools are relatively small and have proved they could more quickly respond to parent demands. They have latched onto this momentum, with dozens of states proposing laws that would expand access to charter schools during the pandemic. In December, Mike Bloomberg pledged $750 million to expand charter schools across the country.

Still, virtual charter school enrollment represents just a sliver of the country’s overall public school population and it’s unclear if this growth will be sustained in the coming years. But experts say state lawmakers and charter operators have laid the groundwork for a more expansive virtual charter sector that could outlast the pandemic.

“A lot of parents and a lot of schools will be eager to go back to normal and they will go back to normal,” said Juliet Squire, who researches charter schools and education policy at the nonprofit group Bellwether Education Partners. “But I think there is a non-negligible number of people who will find that they want to remain in virtual schools.”

Last May, D.C. Mayor Muriel E. Bowser (D) announced that all public school students in the nation’s capital must return to full-time, in-person learning for the 2021-2022 academic year, unless they qualified for a medical exemption. Friendship’s online school, which received approval to operate virtually and opened in 2015 long before the pandemic, was allowed to remain.

Four charter schools sought approval from the D.C. Public Charter School Board to offer virtual learning to students who do not qualify for medical exemptions. The board — which oversees the District’s charter sector — approved two of the requests with some restrictions.

KIPP DC, the city’s largest charter network that educates more than 7,000 students, enrolled 271 preschool, elementary and middle school students in a full-time virtual program this academic year. Twenty high schoolers also remained in virtual school. The network says it had plans to create a small virtual high school before the pandemic and is considering a permanent virtual academy for students of all ages in the coming years.

“The growth has been pretty phenomenal,” said Patricia Brantley, chief executive of the Friendship Public Charter network, a nonprofit charter operator in D.C. that has the virtual academy and more than a dozen other in-person campuses. “Families want this as an option.”

D.C. Public Schools — the city’s traditional public school system that has an enrollment of nearly 50,000 students— has 445 students with medical exemptions in its virtual academy this year. School leaders say they are still determining how its virtual program will operate next academic year.

Douglas N. Harris — who chairs the economics department at Tulane University and directs the National Center for Research on Education Access and Choice — said virtual schools will need to improve if they want to remain a growing and viable part of public education options.

At Friendship Online Academy, students across all demographics performed better than city averages on a national English standardized exam before the pandemic, but performed below average in math, according to city data. A spring 2021 study from EmpowerK12, a local education data firm, found that Friendship Online students from low-income households considered at-risk for academic failure outpaced citywide growth on English and Math progress tests during the pandemic.

But Friendship is a rarity, data show.

Just 35 percent of virtual charter schools received an “acceptable" rating from their states, according to a 2021 study from the National Education Policy Center.

“The academic results are pretty deplorable,” Harris said. “There’s not much debate about it.”

Kiara Childs said she didn’t anticipate keeping her young daughter in virtual school for more than a year. But she still worried about sending her to in-person schooling this academic year, so re-enrolled her for first grade. Now, she said, her daughter is reading above grade level and doing well in school. With coronavirus transmission still high in the city, she plans to continue with the virtual school for second grade. The school provided her a laptop and printer and regularly sends art supplies and other materials.

“Eventually I am going to send her back to a brick and mortar school,” she said. “Now it’s looking like it may be third grade.”

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