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Democrats Want Government Watchdog to Sniff Around Virtual Charter Schools


Two Democratic senators have asked the Government Accountability Office to look into how full-time virtual charter schools work and their results.

In a Wednesday letter, Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash., and Sen. Sherrod Brown, D-Ohio, express concerns about the virtual charters' student-teacher ratios, students' performance compared to their peers in traditional public schools, and their transparency when it comes to issues like executive pay and advertising. 

"Accountability models, funding formulas, and attendance policies were created for brick-and-mortar schools, and yet, state funding and accountability policies have not kept pace with the growth of virtual charter schools," Brown and Murray wrote to the agency. 

Virtual charters have been going through a very difficult stretch. There's intense skepticism about their performance and management practices. In Brown's own state of Ohio, for example, the Electronic Classroom of Tomorrow disintegrated after a lengthy court battle over its claims about student enrollment. (Brown and Murray mentioned the ECOT fallout in their letter). Cyber charters in states like Georgia and New Mexico have also struggled to stay open

In their letter, the two senators cite a 2016 investigation by our colleague Ben Herold into Colorado's largest online charter school, the GOAL Academy, which continued to grow even as questions arose about its students' performance and their level of engagement with the online materials. 

See: Rewarding Failure: An Education Week Investigation of the Cyber Charter Industry

Among other things, the two senators want the GAO to examine:

  • how virtual charters recruit students and compensate recruiters;
  • student outcomes, including outcomes for English-language learners and students with disabilities, among others;
  • vendor relationships between virtual charters and management organizations;
  • the academic rigor of courses;
  • federal, state, and local funding for virtual charters.

Read the full letter from Brown and Murray—who's the top Democrat on the Senate education committee—to the GAO below: 

Graphic: Education Week's 2016 investigation into Colorado's GOAL Academy

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