New model law from the National Alliance acknowledges the elephant in the room: Virtual charter schools

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Ohio’s charter school movement has faced a number of challenges over the past decade. A myriad of school closings and allegations of financial misconduct contributed to it being dubbed the Wild, Wild West of charter schools. Making matters worse, a comprehensive analysis in 2014 by Stanford University’s Center for Research on Education Outcomes (CREDO) found that, on average, Ohio charter students lost fourteen days of learning in reading and forty-three days of learning in math over the course of the school year compared to similar students in traditional public schools. To its credit, the Ohio General Assembly recognized these problems and in October 2015 passed House Bill 2 (HB 2)—a comprehensive reform of the Buckeye State’s charter school laws.

While HB 2 has only been in effect since February, there are already signs that the movement is changing for the better in response to the new law. Unfortunately, despite great strides forward, there is one group of charter schools in Ohio that’s still causing serious heartburn for charter school proponents and critics alike: full-time virtual charter schools. Attendance issues, a nasty court battle, the possibility that the state’s largest e-school (ECOT—The Electronic Classroom of Tomorrow) could have to repay $60 million in state funding, and poor academic performance have led to a growing push to improve e-schools.

The problem in Ohio is clear, but the problem isn’t limited to Ohio, especially in regards to low academic achievement. A seminal national study by CREDO released in October 2015 found that students in online charter schools across the nation struggled mightily, losing on average 72 days per year in reading and a jaw-dropping 180 days per year in math.

As we all know, identifying problems is easy. The difficulty is in finding solutions. Fortunately, the recently released model charter school law from the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools (National Alliance) offers a half dozen policy ideas intended to address the growing issues posed by online charter schools. These new model provisions include language addressing authorizing structure, enrollment criteria, enrollment levels, accountability for performance, funding level based upon costs, and performance-based funding. The National Alliance acknowledges that each of these potential solutions won’t universally apply given the unique context of each state’s laws, but it’s worth looking at how four of the model law provisions might impact Ohio.

Performance-based funding

The National Alliance, in one of its most controversial recommendations, suggests that states fund full-time virtual schools via a performance-based funding system. This idea is simple and intuitive on its face, and it confronts head on the student achievement challenges that online charter schools pose to policymakers. However, widespread low achievement in the movement means that implementing performance-based funding would have an enormous impact, making it both technically and politically complicated to implement. The topic has been broached in Ohio, as State Auditor Dave Yost recently called on the General Assembly to examine “learning-based funding,” which would pay e-schools for successfully delivering—not just offering—education. Despite its complex nature, states considering this type of policy don’t have to start from scratch and should investigate similar models being pursued in a handful of states.  

Accountability for performance  

The model law suggests that charter contracts for online schools include additional measures in a variety of areas where full-time virtual schools have typically struggled, such as student attendance and truancy. Determining how to track attendance in a virtual school setting is difficult, but states have an obligation to online charter schools and their students to set clear guidelines for attendance. Fortunately, Ohio law already has a pretty clear expectation thanks to the aforementioned HB 2: “Each internet- or computer-based community school shall keep an accurate record of each individual student’s participation in learning opportunities each day.” While this is a great start, the law could be improved by making it clear how full-time virtual schools will be held accountable for student attendance and participation and for determining how to account for learning by online students that happens when the student isn’t “logged in” to his or her computer.

Enrollment levels

The National Alliance also recommends that states require authorizers to set maximum enrollment levels each year for full-time virtual schools, and that those levels increase based on performance rather than time. Ohio has enrollment restrictions in place, but the limit is based upon year-over-year growth and isn’t impacted by performance. Furthermore, because the size of the movement was already large when the enrollment growth limits—15 percent for schools with more than 3000 students and 25 percent for schools with fewer than 3000 students—were enacted in Ohio, there really hasn’t been much of an impact. States considering adopting this model law would be wise to consider the size of its existing movement and ensure that academic success includes both proficiency and student growth. In the long term, managing enrollment growth could help ensure that the most successful online schools are able to serve the most students. It could also prevent an individual online charter school from becoming “too big to fail” (i.e. closing the school would be too disruptive to students) or too politically powerful to properly hold it accountable for academic performance.  

Enrollment criteria

Charter schools, including online schools, are public schools and must enroll all interested students. This has always been a core principle, but the new model law acknowledges that this idea may need to be reexamined in the context of full-time virtual schools. Because of the incredibly low student achievement of online charter school students, it’s becoming increasingly clear that students without strong learning supports and/or the proper preparation are struggling mightily in an online environment. A recent study from the Thomas B. Fordham Institute shows that Ohio e-school students are lower-achieving, more likely to have repeated a grade, and more likely to be low-income than other students. In other words, e-school students are those who are most desperately in need of a quality education. Unfortunately, the same study shows they’re not getting it: Across all grades and subjects, e-school students have lower performance in math and reading than otherwise-similar students who attend brick-and-mortar district schools. There’s a pretty significant moral quandary here: If full-time virtual schools consistently fail to serve a certain subset of students—a subset that’s most in need of a quality education—then at what point do they forfeit their right to educate these students?

There are two potential solutions here. The first is to transition virtual schools out from under the charter umbrella and establish them as their own type of public school. This would allow them to establish enrollment criteria, much like magnet schools operated by many school districts. This change would allow online charter schools to serve the students who would most benefit from their model without causing potentially irreparable academic harm to enrolled students who aren’t a good fit. In addition, by allowing virtual schools to determine whom they can best serve, it would be easier and fairer to hold them accountable for student achievement under a state accountability system.

The second option is to continue to require virtual schools to serve everyone but build some flexibility into the law. For example, recent changes in HB 2 explicitly allow Ohio full-time virtual charter schools to require an orientation course for new students. Allowing parents and students to better understand from the beginning the expectations and responsibilities inherent in online education is critical. Another policy option would be to require full-time virtual charter school leaders and teachers to engage with students and parents when students fall behind or struggle to meet attendance requirements. If counseling and conferences fail to address the issues, schools could even be required to assist a student to find a more traditional charter public or district school.

The National Alliance deserves praise for developing policy options that could address the appallingly low performance of many full-time virtual charter school students. There are too many students exercising this important educational option to simply turn a blind eye to its still-developing structure. As should be clear from examining how some of the model law’s recommendations would apply in Ohio, this isn’t going to be easy. Policies will—and should—vary considerably from state to state. Overall, the model law provides a great starting point for states when deciding how to help their online charter schools better serve students, and it couldn’t have come at a better time.

Chad Aldis is the Thomas B. Fordham Institute’s Vice President for Ohio Policy and Advocacy. Jessica Poiner is the Thomas B. Fordham Institute's Education Policy Analyst.


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