Future of Learning

Virtual charter schools need “bold action” for change, says national charter school advocacy group

The major advocacy group for public charter schools is concerned that failing online charter schools may be hurting the credibility of the movement as a whole.

In a report released Thursday, the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools called on state policy makers to rethink the way virtual charter schools are governed, and to move quickly to close those that perform poorly. Further, the group argued it might be necessary for virtual (or online-only) charter schools to be separated from the charter designation completely.

“We think the extent of the problems call for state leaders and authorizers to take bold actions,” said Todd Ziebarth, the lead author of the report and the senior vice president for state advocacy and support for the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools.

The National Alliance acknowledged that the virtual charter school model works well for some students and believes it should be available to students who might benefit from it.

“What we’ve seen, in terms of the research, is that there’s a lot more self-directed learning,” Ziebarth said. “Part of the point of these is to provide more freedom to students and families and make it a more personalized learning experience.”

But in some cases, Ziebarth said, that model backfires. Improving the performance of these online-only schools, he said, might require exploring a new policy framework outside the charter model.

The report’s policy recommendations are based on research released in October 2015 through a partnership between Mathematica Policy Research, Stanford University’s CREDO (Center for Research on Education Outcomes) and the Center on Reinventing Public Education. It showed that some students in virtual charter schools produced academic results in math that were the equivalent of what would be expected if a student had skipped 180 days of school – virtually a full year’s worth of classes. In reading, the deficiency was the equivalent of 72 days of school.

A big part of the problem, according to the report, is that virtual charter schools and brick-and-mortar charter schools function differently in terms of day-to-day student activities, as well as in how they are budgeted and managed.

Since there isn’t a teacher in the room to monitor students’ work and the responsibility to facilitate learning often falls on parents, the report said, states should implement stricter standards for keeping track of student achievement, enrollment and engagement, in order to make sure students aren’t falling behind. Those standards should be outlined in contracts between charter school authorizers and virtual charter schools, the report said.

“Authorizers have a legal and moral responsibility to close chronically low-performing charter schools of any kind, including full-time virtual charter schools,” the report stated. Virtual charter schools should not be allowed to increase enrollment or continue to operate if the goals stated in their contracts with authorizers aren’t met, the report added.

Also endorsing the report were 50CAN, a nonprofit advocacy group, and the National Association of Charter School Authorizers.

According to research conducted by the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools in August 2014, there were then 135 full-time virtual charter schools operating in 23 states and Washington, D.C serving about 180,000 students nationwide.

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Jamie Martines was a reporting intern covering blended learning. She earned her master’s degree from the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism in May 2016,… See Archive

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