Online Charter Schools Under the Microscope

By Paul O'Neill

Parents who select online charter schools for their children should be careful choosers.

NCSECS has had the opportunity to review three recent reports assessing the nature and viability of online charter schools (also called “virtual” charter schools). They are all components of the same umbrella project – the National Study of Online Charter Schools. It is organized into three separate, topical report volumes. Volume I, by Mathematica Policy Research (Mathematica), describes the universe of online charter schools, the students they serve, and their operations. Volume II, by the Center on Reinventing Public Education (CRPE) at the University of Washington, describes the policy environments of online charter schools and provides recommendations to state policymakers. Volume III, by the Center for Research on Education Outcomes (CREDO) at Stanford University, describes the achievement effects of online charter schools.

Overall, the reports highlight significant challenges to the success of such virtual programs. The reports describe these programs as being characterized by large class sizes, heavy responsibilities placed on parents, and weak student academic growth. Most notably, the CREDO report determined that, on average, online charter students achieved each year the equivalent of 180 fewer days of learning in math and 72 fewer days of learning in reading than similar students in district-run brick-and-mortar schools. That is very disturbing.  Advocates for virtual charter schooling have responded, saying that such findings are suspect and misleading.

Access to online charter programs is another concern raised by the researchers. According to the Mathematica report, a large majority (90 percent) of online charter schools report that they serve a general student population, rather than focusing specifically on students with special needs. CPRE points out in its paper that “the ease with which diverse populations of students can access online schools is uncertain. Federal laws pertaining to students with disabilities are applicable to online charter schools, but few states have directly addressed how services will be provided to special education students and students . . .  in the online setting. “ This apparent lack of legal clarity is disconcerting and could be a factor limiting the participation of students with disabilities in virtual charter school programs. Nonetheless, substantial numbers of students with disabilities enroll in online charter schools.

For the parents of a child with disabilities, the upshot of these collective reports may be that they should do their homework before selecting a virtual charter school program for their son or daughter. Online programs may be particularly appealing for students with certain sorts of mobility issues, attentional or interpersonal challenges or other concerns that make a home-based program attractive.  The CRPE report indicates that, on average, students with disabilities in charter schools suffer less from some of the academic deficits experienced by students without disabilities in online charter schools, but overall students with disabilities perform better in traditional public schools. But the reports have relatively little to say about students with disabilities accessing, performing in and exiting such programs. More data and analysis is needed to empower parents to choose wisely.