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School Choice & Charters

How States Are Changing Attendance and Funding Policies for Virtual Schools

By Andrew Ujifusa — December 18, 2019 2 min read
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Over the past three years, states have used policy levers to push virtual schools to increase both attendance and completion, and to make funding for the online education programs more transparent.

Those are two main conclusions from a report released earlier this month by the Education Commission of the States, a policy and research group. The analysis looks at the 25 states that enacted at least 45 bills related to virtual schools from 2017 to 2019. (At least 106 bills were introduced in 36 states, according to the report’s author, ECS policy researcher Ben Erwin). Indiana enacted five bills during that period, the most among the states ECS looked at, followed by Florida with four.

In 2017-18, close to 300,000 students were enrolled in virtual schools in 35 states, the report states, with the vast majority enrolled in virtual charter schools. These schools have proven to be polarizing, including in the broader community of charter schools. Some believe that they provide an additional and important service for students and a natural option parents should have. Others emphasize that the sector has been plagued by mismanagement and a lack of accountability.

Here are a few examples from the ECS report of legislation that states have enacted over the past three years :

  • California passed “a two-year moratorium on non-classroom-based charter schools, including virtual schools.”
  • Indiana approved new measures the state school board can take in response to virtual schools that score in the lowest-performing category on the state accountability system, “including the implementation of a school improvement plan, a reduction in the administrative fee collected by the authorizer, a prohibition or limitation on enrollment growth, or the cancellation of the charter.”
  • Ohio says virtual schools must now “automatically disenroll students who miss 72 consecutive hours of learning opportunities, a reduction from the previous 105 hour limit.”
  • Oklahoma law now “requires virtual charter schools to be subject to the same reporting requirements, financial audits and audit requirements as a school district.”

The ECS report in general shows a trend toward more accountability and transparency for virtual schools. There’s an emerging tension in some states in which lawmakers on the one hand don’t want to banish virtual schools, yet have seen headlines and research highlighting concerns about their outcomes, said Micah Wixom, a policy analyst at ECS who’s also studied charters and school choice. She also noted that in several places there is “pretty vocal parent advocacy” in support of virtual schools.

“You end up with state leaders who say, ‘Look, we want to provide options for students. We are just concerned about how this option is playing out for some students,’ ” Wixom said, adding that some virtual schools “do really well” for some students.

In an award-winning series in 2016, Education Week reporters Ben Herold and Arianna Prothero conducted an extensive investigation of the cyber charter industry, including how Colorado’s largest cyber charter came to be a “virtual mess” and the effectiveness of online charters’ lobbying. U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos has also defended virtual charters, albeit with dubious stats.

Read the full virtual schools report below:

Image via Education Commission of the States