Virtual Schools Less Diverse Than Overall Public School Population, Says Report

By Sean Cavanagh — March 04, 2014 2 min read
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Enrollment in full-time virtual schools for K-12 students continues to grow, but the online sector is serving smaller percentages of impoverished, limited-English, and special-needs students than brick-and-mortar schools, according to a new report.

The National Education Policy Center says it identified 338 full-time virtual schools in the 2012-13 academic year, enrolling 243,000 students, which represents a 22 percent rise in the number of students served over the previous year.

Forty-four percent of the full-time virtual schools studied were operated by private “education-management” companies, and those schools account for 72 percent of all students served, the center says. That represents a rise in the share of enrollment in schools managed by private companies since 2011-12, when it was 67 percent.

K12 Inc., based in Herndon, Va., remains the largest for-profit provider of full-time virtual schools, the authors say, serving about 86,000 students in 2011-12. Connections Academy ranks second in the for-profit sector, with 25 schools serving 41,000 students during that year, according to the report.

The report also concludes that full-time virtual schools serve a less-diverse population than public schools as a whole, as measured by the national mean—with the online providers having larger percentages of white students, and smaller portions of African-American and Hispanic students. The virtual schools studied also had a special-needs population of 7 percent, compared with an average of 13 percent for all public schools. In addition, the portion of students receiving free- or reduced-price lunches in virtual schools stands at 35 percent, compared with 45 percent for the average across public schools, according to the report. The authors’ estimates were generated by looking through publicly available data, with some limitations, such as the instances when states combine virtual with local district data in a way that makes disaggregation impossible.

The NEPC, based in Boulder, Colo., has released numerous reports on charter and virtual schools over the years, and many of its analyses have cast those schools’ growth and development in a critical light. The latest report is the second of its kind focused on virtual schools. The report was supported with funding provided by the Great Lakes Center for Education Research and Practice, a nonprofit whose members include teachers’ unions, according to the organization’s Website.

A version of this news article first appeared in the Digital Education blog.