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May 2, 2013

"Virtual" schools drain millions in public funds, with limited oversight. A national study, released by the National Education Policy Center (NEPC), comprehensively reviews 311 full-time "virtual schools" operating in the U.S. and finds serious and systemic problems with them.

Virtual, online, and cyber are words used to describe so-called "schools" that provide a computer in a student's home, from which the child works in isolation or with a parent to access course content. Typically, access to an assistant is made available on a limited basis for questions.

"Even a cursory review of virtual schooling in the U.S. reveals ... outsized claims, lagging performance, intense conflicts, lots of taxpayer money at stake, and very little solid evidence to justify the rapid expansion of virtual schools," said University of Colorado Professor Alex Molnar, who edited the study, "Schools in the U.S. 2013: Politics, Performance, Policy, and Research Evidence."

Despite virtual schools' track record of students falling behind their peers academically or dropping-out at higher rates, states continue to expand virtual schools to students. 

Publicly funded virtual school expansion appears to be driven by lobbying and advertising dollars. It is not justified by the research evidence, nor is it governed by thoughtful policy.

Columbia University Professor Luis Huerta, one of the study's authors, noted that, "In the past two years a number of states, including Wisconsin, Oregon, Louisiana, and Michigan, either raised or eliminated enrollment caps for virtual schools." At the same time, "none of those states passed legislation strengthening accountability and oversight," reports co-author Jennifer King Rice, a University of Maryland professor.  

The overall cost to taxpayers for lackluster virtual schools has been significant. Despite incurring much lower costs than brick-and-mortar schools, virtual school operators often receive the same allocation as schools that pay for buildings, desks, textbooks, and other costs associated with more traditional school settings.

The consistently poor performance of full-time virtual schools makes it imperative to know more about these schools. Stanford University Professor Emeritus Larry Cuban, who has long followed education technology issues, explained: "The current climate of elementary and secondary school reform that promotes uncritical acceptance of any and all virtual education innovations is not supported by educational research. A model that is built around churn is not sustainable; the unchecked growth of virtual schools is essentially an education tech bubble."

On the publicly available metrics of Adequate Yearly Progress (AYP), virtual schools lag significantly behind traditional brick-and-mortar schools, even though they have an easier-to-educate student demographic. In the 2010-2011 school year, 52 percent of brick-and-mortar district and charter schools met AYP, contrasted with 23.6 percent of virtual schools -- a 28 percentage-point gap. Virtual schools also enroll a far smaller percentage of low-income students, special education students, and English language learners than brick-and-mortar public schools.

Currently virtual schools enroll more than 200,000 elementary and secondary students in 39 states and the District of Columbia. K12 Inc. is by far the largest private operator in this highly profitable business sector. 

The authors of the NEPC report conclude that continued rapid expansion of full-time "cyber" schools is unwise. 

The National Education Policy Center states that its mission is "to produce and disseminate high-quality, peer-reviewed research to inform education policy discussions. We are guided by the belief that the democratic governance of public education is strengthened when policies are based on sound evidence."

Education Justice Press Contact:
Molly A. Hunter, Esq.
Director, Education Justice
email: mhunter@edlawcenter.org
voice: 973 624-1815 x19

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