Record: Alex Molnar, ed., Virtual Schools in the U.S. 2014: Politics, Performance, Policy, and Research Evidence (Boulder, CO: National Education Policy Center, 2014). Available here.
Summary: Part one of this report summarized recent legislative activity relative to virtual public schooling. Part two surveyed the academic research on virtual schools. Part three, which I review in this post, provides raw data on the number of online schools in operation, the providers that run them, and the students who attend them.
The authors begin by noting that there is a profound “information gap” regarding how many full time virtual schools there are, who runs them, and who attends them. That gap the authors hope to fill with this section of the NEPC report. They are very clear that they are limiting their analysis to full-time exclusively virtual public schools, be they run by for-profit Education Management Organizations (EMOs), non-profits, or by school districts themselves. Though they have assiduously compiled all available data, there remain several gaps, especially regarding student demographics. Some districts or states do not distinguish in their student demographic data between online schools and brick-and-mortars or between charter and conventional public schools.
With these caveats in mind, the authors say that they were able to identify 338 “full-time virtual schools” enrolling over 243,000 students. (p. 60) Last year’s study had found 311 schools enrolling just under 200,000, which means that in one year online public schooling grew by 21.7%.
Of these 338 schools, 53% of them are controlled by the two largest for-profit EMOs, K12 (36%) and Connections Academies (17%). The percentage of students enrolled in virtual schools run by for-profits has been increasing steadily every year. In 2011-2012 K12 operated 81 full-time virtual schools enrolling almost 86,000 students. Connections Academy had 25 schools with more than 41,000 students.
For-profit schools tend on average to be much larger than comparable schools run by non-profits (1,230 students on average vs. 470 students). The largest nonprofit EMO, Roads Education Organization, operates only four full-time virtual schools. Given the amount of money K12 and Connections Academies are making, other for-profits are rushing into the business. K12 recently bought out two of its competitors (Insight Schools and Kaplan Virtual Education), but Edison Schools, Inc., Leona Group LLC., Mosaica Inc., and White Hat Management are in the process of expanding into the online charter business.
Students attending full-time online schools are significantly more white (75% compared to 54% nationally), more female (52.5%), less poor (35.1% qualifying for free lunch vs. 45.4% nationally), less likely to be designated special needs (7.2% vs. 13.1% nationally), and less likely to be English Language Learner (.1% vs. 9.6% nationally). While in conventional public schools students are evenly spread out by grade, virtual schools have lower rates of elementary grade enrollment and higher rates of high school enrollment. In brick-and-mortar public schools the average student-teacher ration is about 15 to 1. In virtual schools that average is 37 to 1 in schools operated by for-profit EMOs and 17.3 to 1 in schools operated by nonprofits.
In terms of student progress, one would expect given that students enrolled in online schools are whiter, richer, and less likely to be designated special needs or ELL, that achievement would be high. But that is not the case. In the 2010-11 school year (before most states acquired waivers so they wouldn’t have to meet federal AYP requirements), 52% of brick-and-mortar public schools met Adequate Yearly Progress standards (AYP). Only 23.6% of virtual schools did so. That rate is no anomaly. In 2009-10 only 29.6% of virtual schools met AYP. In 2011-12 in the few states that had not obtained waivers only 29.7% of online schools met AYP. This is especially noteworthy given that during these years brick-and-mortar charter schools, some of them operated by the same companies now operating virtual schools, met AYP at rates very similar to brick-and-mortar conventional public schools. Results also differ by company. At the very bottom of the heap are virtual schools operated by White Hat Management. Only 5% of their schools met AYP in 2011-12.
In states that have obtained waivers, virtual schools, like their brick-and-mortar competitors, receive from the state a letter grade or star rating based on a number of inputs. Again, in all cases online schools score below state averages (about 66% classed as academically unacceptable). Finally, graduation rates at online schools lag far behind national averages for brick-and-mortar public schools (43.8% compared to 78.6% nationally).
The authors conclude that though “full-time virtual schooling is growing rapidly, with growth largely dominated by for-profit EMOs, particularly K12 Inc. and Connections Academies,” the “consistently negative performance of full-time virtual schools across all school performance measures” suggests that “continued rapid expansion seems unwise.” (p. 71,72). They call for more rigorous data collection methods and for policymakers to take seriously the evidence that has been accrued so far as they consider future directions in virtual schooling policy.
Appraisal: The authors of this and the other two sections of this marvelous report deserve our thanks for their hard work in amassing all the data available on virtual schools and putting it all together into one accessible and fluent package. The footnotes to each section are basically a complete bibliography of all that has been written about online schools in scholarly sources and major news outlets. The data, while not perfect, is the best that can be obtained. The sober conclusions are well-earned and credible. Whether state legislatures will heed hard data or continue to be swayed by aggressive lobbying efforts by the for-profit EMOs remains to be seen.
Milton Gaither, Messiah College