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Growth of Full-Time Online Schools Slowing, Study Finds

After years of rapid growth, full-time online education for K-12 students appears to be plateauing amid ongoing concerns about poor performance, financial mismanagement, and inadequate regulation and accountability structures.

That's according to new research from the National Education Policy Center, a longtime critic of the virtual school sector.

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A collection of reports released by the group this week says that as of the 2017-18 school year, there were 501 full-time virtual K-12 schools in the U.S., enrolling more than 297,000 students. That represents less than 1 percent enrollment growth over the previous year, according to the study, titled "Virtual Schools in the U.S. 2019."

The researchers behind the study call for further curtailing the expansion of the sector, citing a broad range of concerns.

When it comes to academic outcomes, for example, "the body of evidence is overwhelming in its critical conclusion that virtual schools are performing terribly, with no signs of improvement," the NEPC report says.

Furthermore, little is still known about how the schools actually operate, including the curricula and instructional models they use, the researchers argue.

And policymakers have continued to struggle to effectively regulate the sector, NEPC contends, citing a recent decrease in legislative activity around full-time virtual schools and ongoing confusion and disagreement over basic issues such as how the schools should be funded and how attendance should be tracked.

"Until these questions can be adequately addressed, policymakers should limit or consider a moratorium on [virtual schools'] growth," the report concludes.

Longstanding concerns over virtual schools

Concerns over full-time online education are nothing new. 

NEPC has been releasing reports raising similar issues for almost a decade. Groups such as the Center for Research on Educational Outcomes at Stanford University have documented the "overwhelming negative impact" of such schools on student learning. And a 2016 Education Week investigation dove deep into sector-wide problems with both management and student performance.

Still, proponents of full-time online schools point to continued strong demand from parents.  They also highlight ways that virtual schools are different from traditional brick-and-mortar schools, arguing they should be judged by their own set of standards.

There's also a separate-but-related world of blended schools, which rely on a mix of online and face-to-face instruction. The NEPC report also looks into this world, saying about 300 such schools in the U.S. serve a total of nearly 133,000 students, often with better results than their full-time online counterparts.

The result of such debates and fragmentation within the sector has been widespread confusion and general inaction.

A review of all the bills introduced in state legislatures in 2017 and 2018, for example, found that the same types of bills are getting introduced over and over again, often with limited success.

 Progress has been sporadic at best when it comes to altering the funding structures for virtual schools, imposing enrollment limits, figuring out how to define student attendance, and ensuring that sanctions for poor performance are actually enforced.Fifty-four of the 85 bills introduced in 2017 failed to get enacted into law. Fewer bills were introduced and past last year. 

"Policymakers continue to struggle to reconcile traditional funding structures, governance and accountability systems, instructional quality, and staffing demands with the unique organizational models and instructional methods associated with virtual schooling," the report reads.

Virtual schools by the numbers

Here's the landscape NEPC describes: 

  • 39 states now have virtual or blended schools.
  • Fewer than half of full-time virtual schools are publicly funded, privately managed charter schools. But these schools tend to be far larger than their district- or state-run counterparts, accounting for 79 percent of the students enrolled in full-time online schools.
  • K12 Inc. remains the largest for-profit operator in the sector, with 73 full-time online schools enrolling more than 88,000 students.
  • Full-time virtual schools average 44 students per teacher, compared with 34 students per teacher in blended schools and 16 students per teacher in public schools overall.
  • When it comes to performance on state accountability systems, there are a few relatively promising signs: In Wisconsin, for example, 71 percent of the state's 24 virtual schools received a rating of acceptable, with 3 receiving the highest rating possible, NEPC found.
  • More common, though, are places like Colorado, where 57 percent of the state's 23 virtual schools were rated unacceptable.
  • District-run virtual schools and those not run by a for-profit educational management organization tended to be rated better on state accountability systems.

Despite the overall sobering picture such numbers paint, the NEPC researchers say they "remain optimistic that these new modes of [education] delivery can work."  They call for more experimentation inside the context of traditional schools and classrooms.

They also call for more sustained, better-funded research into the workings of the schools, to help inform policy.

"More than twenty years after the first virtual schools began, there continues to be an inadequate research base of empirical, longitudinal studies to guide the practice and policy of virtual schooling," the report says.


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