School Choice & Charters

Full-Time Virtual Schools: Still Growing, Still Struggling, Still Resisting Oversight

By Benjamin Herold — May 06, 2021 6 min read
Student attending class from a remote location.

Despite continued academic struggles, enrollment in the nation’s full-time virtual and blended schools continues to climb, a trend abetted by fading attempts at legislative oversight and a global pandemic that has pushed online learning into the national mainstream.

That’s the takeaway from a new report titled Virtual Schools in the U.S. 2021, released May 6 by the National Education Policy Center, a left-leaning organization that is a big critic of full-time virtual schools.

“The growth of this sector has continued despite scant research to support it and continued poor overall performance,” the report’s authors said in a statement. “Policymakers have yet to adequately address six pressing areas of concern related to virtual schools: their governance, funding, accountability, curriculum, instruction quality, and teacher quality.”

A total of 477 full-time virtual schools enrolled 332,379 U.S. K-12 public school students during the 2019-20 school year, the report found. An additional 306 “blended” schools, in which instruction takes place both online and face-to-face, enroll a combined 152,530 students.

Altogether, enrollment in the nation’s full-time virtual and blended schools is up by more than 50,000 students since 2017-18. While systematic data on virtual-school enrollments this school year are not part of the NEPC report because they are not yet available, anecdotal evidence hints at continued enrollment gains.

NEPC has released annual reviews of K-12 online education for the past decade. For the entirety of that time, the available evidence has pointed to poor academic performance across the sector. In 2019-20, the researchers found, the graduation rate in full-time virtual schools was just 54.6 percent, 30 points lower than the national rate. Less than 43 percent of full-time virtual schools with ratings by their state accountability systems were deemed acceptable. Those findings mirror years of academic research and journalistic investigations that have consistently pointed to a pattern of atrocious performance and financial mismanagement in this niche segment of the nation’s public education system.

The news from NEPC wasn’t all bad: Blended schools tended to perform better than their virtual counterparts, the researchers found, and virtual schools operated by districts or non-profit groups tended to perform better than those operated by for-profit education management organizations. At the state level, Florida’s online schools appear to be doing rather well, with 16 of the 29 schools that received ratings earning an ‘A’ on the state’s accountability system.

Still, despite years of pushing from researchers and critics, efforts by state legislatures to overhaul how online schools are funded and held accountable appear to be waning. Over the past two years, for example, just four bills nationwide sought to improve monitoring of virtual course quality. Three of them failed to muster enough votes to be enacted into law.

Even the flurry of state legislative activity in response to COVID-19 appears to have mostly discounted what little research there is on what does—and doesn’t—work in online learning.

“Legislators did not necessarily think deeply about how to address remote learning needs, nor did they try to change the existing structure of virtual schooling,” the NEPC report reads. “Instead, they designed emergency bills aimed at putting a band aid on the hemorrhaging issues.”

Long-term trend of poor performance continues

In 2016, Education Week took a deep look at full-time online charter schools, finding a sector plagued by serious academic troubles and management problems, especially in schools operated by for-profit entities.

Such companies continue to dominate the online-learning landscape, NEPC found. The two largest—K12 Inc. and Connections Academy, which operate a combined 115 full-time virtual schools—have now been around for two decades. All told, for-profit entities educate nearly 6 in 10 full-time virtual students, despite operating just 3 in 10 virtual schools. That’s because the average for-profit, full-time virtual school enrolls 1,384 students, compared with roughly 400 students for the average full-time online school run by a nonprofit.

Data on the demographics of students in the sector, meanwhile, remain spotty. Among the trends NEPC did identify: Based on available information, it appears that full-time virtual schools enroll a far lower share of students who have special needs (6.7 percent vs. 13.1 percent national average) and a far lower share of students who are learning English (2.5 percent vs. 9.6 percent) than traditional public schools. Blended schools, on the other hand, enroll higher proportions of English-language learner, Hispanic, and low-income students than K-12 schools at large.

Drawing a clear picture of online and blended schools’ performance was complicated by widespread changes, freezes, and variations in state accountability systems. Despite such limitations, NEPC found that just 37 percent of full-time virtual schools operated by a for-profit education company received an acceptable rating from their states. That number was higher for those full-time virtual schools operated by districts (51 percent with acceptable ratings) and nonprofit education management organizations (64 percent).

State-level results illustrated the trend. In Louisiana, for example, 11 of the 12 full-time virtual schools that received a rating were deemed unacceptable. In Michigan, 71 of 80 full-time virtual schools were rated unacceptable, with one of the schools receiving a score of 1.48 out of 100.

The researchers from NEPC did uncover one promising sign of potential change, however. The average student-teacher ratio in full-time virtual schools is now 27:1—still well higher than the 16:1 ratio in traditional public schools and the 24:1 ratio in blended schools, but down substantially from the 59:1 student-teacher ratio NEPC found among full-time virtual schools in its last report.

States adopt ‘emergency stop gaps’

On the policy front, NEPC reported finding “little evidence to indicate that emerging research is informing legislative action.”

No state, for example, has yet enacted a comprehensive funding formula that ties funding for full-time virtual schools directly to those schools’ actual costs and operating expenditures. NEPC also reported a decrease in the number of bills seeking to expand oversight and accountability of full-time virtual schools, plus a high rate of failure for those bills that are introduced.

One reason, NEPC argued, is that the for-profit operators who dominate the sector continue to lobby against most potential regulation and donate to elected officials who support their positions.

With hundreds of districts saying they intend to continue online learning after the pandemic, including using federal stimulus dollars to start or expand their own full-time virtual schools, a countervailing trend could take root. Report co-author Michael K. Barbour, an education professor at Touro University California, described that emerging strategy as “probably a wiser investment than simply handing money over to corporations so that executives and shareholders can line their pockets with money intended for public education.”

But even the 18 online-learning-related bills passed by states are unlikely to do much to ensure that even district-run virtual schools address the longstanding concerns with full-time online learning. The new laws are mostly “emergency stop-gaps,” said education professor Luis A. Huerta of Teachers College Columbia University. Most of the bills focused on strategies like providing emergency internet access, or adjusting bureaucratic mandates around issues like counting student attendance and evaluating teachers.

“Any efforts to expand virtual schooling based on 2020 legislative efforts would be foolhardy,” said Huerta, one of the authors of the NEPC report. “None of the emergency COVID bills in 2020 were grounded on evidence of best practices related to developing and sustaining effective virtual schooling at a wider scale.”

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