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Charter Advocacy Groups Want Higher Standards for Online-Only Schools

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Three of the nation's leading charter school advocacy groups are calling for a complete overhaul of state policies governing online-only charter schools.

A new report from the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools, the National Association of Charter School Authorizers, and the 50-State Campaign for Achievement Now (50CAN) outlines the challenges facing the online-only, or virtual, schools and offers recommendations to hold their authorizers accountable for student performance and financial decisions.

The three groups largely crafted the report's recommendations in response to sweeping research findings released last fall that showed that students who took classes through virtual schools made dramatically less progress than their peers in traditional schools. It was the first national study of the cybercharter sector and was conducted by the Center for Research and Educational Outcomes at Stanford University, the Center on Reinventing Public Education, and Mathematica Policy Research.

In a review of online charter school performance, the charter school advocacy groups found that:

  • On average, full-time virtual charter students make no gains in math and less than half the gains in reading of their peers in traditional brick-and-mortar public schools.
  • All subgroups of students, including those in poverty, English-language learners, and special education students, perform worse in full-time virtual charters than in traditional public schools.
  • Students who leave full-time virtual charter schools are apt to change schools more often after they leave cyber charters than they did before enrolling.

"If traditional public schools were producing such results, we would rightly be outraged," the report introduction reads, in part. "We should not feel any different just because these are charter schools."

To address those concerns and others, the report authors recommend:

  • Only permitting authorizers that are granted statewide or regional chartering authority to oversee full-time virtual charters that enroll students from more than one district.
  • Considering enrollment criteria for full-time virtual charter schools based on factors "proven necessary for student success," such as self-motivated students and engaged parents.
  • Setting enrollment caps that allows schools to grow —or not—based on student performance.
  • Establishing goals for enrollment, attendance, achievement, truancy, finances, and operations that are tied to renewal and closure decisions.
  • Requiring virtual charter operators to propose and justify a price per student in their charter school applications. The group argues that too many states rely on funding systems designed for brick-and-mortar schools.

Despite performing worse academically than traditional brick-and-mortar schools, the enrollment in virtual schools continues to grow. Mostly run by for-profit, companies, full-time virtual charters schools enroll about 180,000 students in 23 states and the District of Columbia. More than half the virtual charter students are concentrated in three states, California, Ohio, and Pennsylvania, the report found.

Many of the schools serve students who need flexibility—like rural students who want to avoid lengthy bus rides to traditional brick-and-mortar schools and home- or hospital-bound students who want to remain in school despite illness.

The charter advocacy groups voice support for virtual charter schools, making the case that banning or shutting down the schools would limit parent and student choice. But the paper make clear that "the results clearly show that significant problems exist within this part of the charter school movement."

"Left unchecked, these problems have the potential to overshadow the positive impacts this model currently has for some students," the report concludes. "We urge state leaders and authorizers to address these problems head-on instead of turning a blind eye to them."


Image: Courtesy of National Alliance for Public Charter Schools

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