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Jamie Horwitz, (202) 549-4921,
Dan Quinn, (517) 203-2940,

Major Virtual Schools Report Released

Analysis uncovers underperforming schools

EAST LANSING, Mich. (May 2, 2013) – In the last decade, although virtual schools have expanded rapidly there is little data to justify their growth. The National Education Policy Center (NEPC), with funding from the Great Lakes Center for Education Research and Practice, released the first of a planned series of annual reports on the performance of virtual schools, the policy issues that virtual schools raise, and the available research evidence on virtual education.  

Virtual Schools in the U.S. 2013: Politics, Performance, Policy, and Research Evidence, is edited by Alex Molnar, a research professor at the University of Colorado Boulder. Contributing authors to the research brief include Gary Miron of Western Michigan University, Luis Huerta of Teachers College, Columbia University, Jennifer King Rice of the University of Maryland, and Larry Cuban of Stanford University. Contributors to this study also included professors Sheryl Shafer of Teachers College, Columbia University, Brian Horvitz of Western Michigan University, and Charisse Gulosino at the University of Memphis

According to Cuban, "Policymakers know that business, civic and community leaders expect them to work tirelessly to improve student academic performance through every available means, including better school organization, governance, curriculum, instruction – and especially better technology. Unfortunately, good politics does not automatically result in good policy."

The report offers a number of troubling statistics:

  • In the 2010-11 school year, only 23.6 percent of virtual schools made Adequate Yearly Progress (AYP) compared to 52 percent for traditional and charter schools.
  • Three-quarters of the students in virtual schools are white, compared to the national mean of 54 percent.
  • Black students account for only 10.3 percent of the virtual school enrollment, compared to 16.5 percent for all public schools. The gap is even wider for Hispanic students, which is surprising given the large presence of virtual schools in states with large Hispanic populations like Arizona, Florida and California.
  • The number of students qualifying for free or reduced lunch in virtual schools is 10-percentage points lower than all public schools – 35.1 percent compared to 45.4 percent.
  • The proportion of students with disabilities being served by virtual schools is half the national average – 7.2 percent compared to 13.1 percent.

Profits, rather than student outcomes, is clearly the main driver behind the rapid growth of virtual schools.

Because virtual schools have lower costs associated with teacher salaries and benefits, facilities and maintenance, transportation, food service and other in-person services – compared to their brick-and-mortar counterparts – Huerta and King Rice recommend developing a new funding formula based on the actual costs of operating virtual schools.

It's imperative for policymakers to slow or stop the growth of these schools until more research is done and accountability measures can be put into place, the report's authors concluded.

"Even a cursory review of media reports and a passing acquaintance with the research on virtual education reveals that policy is being made in an environment much like the legendary 'wild west'," according to the report editor Molnar. "These reports will analyze the performance of full-time, publicly funded K-12 virtual schools; describe key policy issues raised by virtual education; assess the research evidence that bears on K-12 virtual teaching and learning; and provide research-based recommendations to help guide policymaking."

Find the report on the Great Lakes Center website:

This report is also found on the NEPC website:

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