The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Charter advocates acknowledge ‘disturbingly low performance’ of virtual schools

Advocates don’t want to ban virtual schools — they want them to get better.(iStock)

Full-time virtual charter schools have become increasingly popular during the past decade, now enrolling 180,000 students nationwide, students who learn by logging on to laptops from home instead of going to brick-and-mortar schoolhouses. But these schools’ growing enrollment has been accompanied by intense scrutiny: Journalists, activists and scholars have reported on virtual schools’ poor performance and raised questions about whether the schools are designed to effectively teach kids — or to effectively make a profit.

Virtual schools are multiplying, but some question their educational value

Now national charter-school advocates are calling for tighter oversight of virtual schools and closure of those that persistently fail, acknowledging that full-time virtual schools — most of which are run by for-profit companies — have “significant problems” and “disturbingly low performance.”

The Center for Research on Education Outcomes, which is generally seen as friendly to charter schools, found last year that students enrolled in full-time online charter schools learn far less than their peers in traditional public schools. The online charter students lost an average of about 72 days of learning in reading and 180 days of learning in math during the course of a 180-day school year, the study found. That is, in math, it’s as if the students did not attend school at all.

Study shows that online charter school students are lagging

“If traditional public schools were producing such results, we would rightly be outraged. We should not feel any different just because these are charter schools,” wrote three leading charter-school organizations — the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools, the 50-State Campaign for Achievement Now (50CAN) and the National Association of Charter School Authorizers — in a report released Thursday.

Operators of virtual schools have long argued that their schools are sometimes low-performing because they attract students who haven’t succeeded in traditional school and are behind when they begin their online schooling.

The report does not recommend banning virtual schools, arguing that they provide an important choice for some students, such as those in rural areas, those who are hospital-bound or young athletes in need of a more flexible school schedule. Instead, it recommends a series of policies that states and school authorizers should adopt to ensure that virtual schools are serving students well.

States should set enrollment criteria to ensure that students who choose virtual schools are those who have the qualities they need — like self-motivation — to succeed, according to the report. The report argues that schools’ funding and enrollment caps should depend in part on their performance; it also says that authorizers should set clear goals for attendance, achievement, truancy, attrition and finances, and that schools should be closed if they fail to meet those goals.

Finally, the organizations recommend that states set up a system that requires virtual schools to justify the per-pupil funding they receive to ensure that the cost to taxpayers is directly related to the services provided to students.