No one walks down the produce aisle hoping that some of the bins contain rotten fruit to choose from just to have more options. Likewise, no family looking for a school for their child hopes that they will have bad schools to choose from. This includes virtual schools, a fast-growing segment of our public education system that has doubled enrollment in less than 10 years and now serves over 275,000 students.
Unfortunately, too many virtual schools, including those that operate as charter schools, have proven to be rotten apples. Since late last year, virtual charter schools in Indiana, Georgia, Nevada, Ohio and South Carolina have been closed or faced closure because of academic or financial problems. Earlier this year, the massive virtual school, Electronic Classroom of Tomorrow, serving 12,000 Ohio students, closed because it had submitted inflated attendance data to the state, resulting in $80 million of overpayments to the school.
For taxpayers and many students, these closures are a step in the right direction. Yes, virtual schools work well for a small number of students, but nearly every study of them has found the results for most students are dismal. The most definitive study to date found full-time virtual charters have an overwhelmingly negative impact on student achievement, with students losing on average 180 days of learning in math out of a 180-day school year. As one researcher concluded, “It is literally as if the kid did not go to school for an entire year.”
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These aren’t the results that parents and taxpayers want from charter schools. In fact, they stand in stark contrast to the positive academic impact brick-and-mortar charter schools are having for children across the nation. If virtual charters cannot live up to the high bar that all public charter schools are expected to meet, they must face consequences for their severe underperformance.
And while it’s good to see states and authorizers – the organizations that provide big-picture oversight of charter schools – taking a stand against these schools’ dismal achievements, we must do more. After all, shutting down a failing school is not the same as providing a child with a good school. We must create more quality options of all kinds for the children, families and communities who don’t have enough good schools to choose from.
This starts with creating policies at the state level that help these public schools succeed. A roadmap released last year by my organization and two other national charter groups is a good place to start. It points to solutions such as establishing clear expectations for each school’s performance; only allowing statewide authorizers with expertise in virtual schooling to oversee virtual operators with statewide jurisdiction; and funding virtual schools based on performance and what it actually costs to run them.
If we’re going to preserve the benefits families find in this school model and provide students with better options in the future, we must create an effective oversight system that helps virtual schools be successful. We need a system that prevents the bad apples from ever being offered as an option. We know how to get there, now we just have to get to work.