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Online Charter Schools: Fast Growth But Spotty Performance in Ohio

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Full-time virtual charter school students in Ohio perform worse academically than their peers enrolled in traditional district schools, according to a study released Tuesday.

Furthermore, virtual charter schools are dragging down the overall performance of Ohio's charter sector, the study says—brick-and-mortar charter school students perform slightly better or slightly worse than their district school peers, depending on the subject.

Those are among several findings in a wide-ranging study that analyzed enrollment trends, demographics and academic achievement in Ohio's virtual charter schools. It was conducted by June Ahn, an associate professor at New York University's Steinhardt School of Culture, Education, and Human Development, and commissioned by the Thomas B. Fordham Institute, a think tank that supports school choice. 

The study relies on data from the Ohio Department of Education and controls for demographics and prior student achievement.

This is the most recent in a string of studies and reports that have targeted virtual charter schools and produced less-than-flattering findings. Arguably the most major among them was a national report released in October from Stanford University's Center for Research on Education Outcomes, or CREDO, that found that full-time, online-only charter schools have an "overwhelmingly" negative impact on student academic achievement.

With over 35,000 students, Ohio has one of the largest populations of full-time virtual charter school students in the country. Although that enrollment only accounts for about 2 percent of all public school students in Ohio, they are the fastest growing group, increasing by 60 percent over the last four years. Brick-and-mortar charter schools, by comparison, have only grown by 7 percent in that same period and district schools have shrunk by 5 percent.

What Kind of Students Enroll in Online Charter Schools?

That's one of the primary questions the study sought to answer—at least for Ohio.

It found that students in virtual charter schools, also called e-schools in Ohio, are more low-achieving academically than their peers in district schools. They are also more likely to participate in the federal free- and reduced-price lunch program (a common, albeit imperfect, measure of poverty), more likely to have repeated a grade, and less likely to participate in gifted education.

Finally, e-schools also have a higher percentage of students in special education—17 percent compared to 13 percent in district schools.

"These differences are not particularly surprising if we consider that students who choose fully online schools may already be failing out of the brick-and-mortar system, or (especially in the case of special education students) students for whom a traditional classroom and school just isn't a good fit," writes Ahn, the study's author.

But a completely online school—which requires a lot of student motivation and parental support—may not be a suitable learning environment for some of these students, the study says. The report floats the idea of changing state law to allow full-time virtual charter schools to use selective admission policies in order to ensure that students admitted into e-schools are capable of succeeding in those settings.

In terms of racial and ethnic makeup, virtual charters were fairly similar to district schools, but enrolled smaller percentages of racial minority students compared to brick-and-mortar charters. (Eighty percent of e-school students are white compared to 76 percent in district schools and 24 percent in brick-and-mortar charters.)

Traditional charters also enroll more low-performing students, students in poverty, and students who are learning English.

Although online charter schools are sometimes touted as a way for students—especially those in rural areas—to take courses they may not otherwise have access to, the study found most of virtual charter school students live in Ohio's urban areas, where they also have ample access to brick-and-mortar charters.

Hardly any students take Advanced Placement courses online, and students in online math classes are more likely to take remedial math compared to students who take classes with a teacher face-to-face.

The Walton Family Foundation, one of the leading philanthropic backers of the charter sector nationally, helped fund the research. (The Walton Family Foundation provides grant support for Education Week's coverage of school choice and parent-empowerment issues.)

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