School Choice & Charters

Virtual Charter Schools Perform Worse Than District Schools, Report Says

By Arianna Prothero — April 21, 2016 2 min read

UPDATED

Charter schools and for-profit management companies make up the majority of the virtual schooling sector, according to a new report from the National Education Policy Center.

And despite performing worse academically than traditional brick-and-mortar schools, the enrollment in virtual schools continues to grow.

The NEPC’s fourth annual report profiles in detail the makeup of the virtual school sector, which has grown to include students across district schools, charter schools, and even home schools.
Although just under half of full-time virtual schools are charters, they account for over 80 percent of virtual school enrollment nationally.

For-profit management companies also dominate the sector, with just two—K12 Inc. and Connections Academy—operating 40 percent of all virtual schools and enrolling nearly three-quarters of all students.

Virtual charter schools were also much more likely to be run by a for-profit management company.

This is the first year that the NEPC report included “blended schools,” which combine face-to-face instruction with online lessons. At 22 percent, the California-based charter school network Rocketship enrolls the majority of students in blended learning schools. [UPDATE: (May 13) Rocketship disputes the report’s characterization of blended learning programs, as well as the network’s share of the market.]

Full-time virtual and blended learning charter schools also perform worse academically than their district-run counterparts.

Only about 17 percent of virtual charter schools outperformed their state’s average proficiency standards on English/language arts and math tests, compared to 23 percent of district-run virtual schools. Blended charter schools fared worse, with only 10 percent exceeding average state proficiency benchmarks on English/language arts and math exams, compared to 27 percent in district schools. However, the report’s authors point out that blended schools serve significantly more low-income students than full-time virtual schools.

By another measure, virtual charter schools had an average four-year graduation rate of 40 percent, compared to 41 percent of online district schools and the national graduation rate of 81 percent.

The report’s authors point out that there are limitations to their study due in part to gaps in their data and issues inherent in making comparisons between different kinds of schools and students.

The NEPC report follows a scathing report released by Stanford University’s Center for Research on Education Outcomes last fall which found that virtual charters had an “overwhelming negative impact” on student academic growth.

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Graph from “Virtual Schools Report 2016: Directory and Performance Review” by Gary Miron and Charisse Gulosino.

A version of this news article first appeared in the Charters & Choice blog.