Virtual School Profits Far Exceeding Performance

While proponents of for-profit virtual schools argue that cyber classrooms provide students with greater access to a high-quality education, a new report released by the National Education Policy Center (NEPC)Virtual Schools in the U.S. 2013: Politics, Performance, Policy, and Research Evidence—finds that virtual schools often receive little to no oversight and seem more concerned with profit margins rather than their students’ lackluster performances.

“Even a cursory review of virtual schooling in the U.S. reveals an environment much like the legendary wild west,” says University of Colorado-Boulder Professor Alex Molnar, the editor of the report. “There are 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.”

Students in 39 states and the District of Columbia can now enroll in virtual schools for full or part-time courses, and approximately 275,000 students took online classes in the 2011-2012 academic year. But even as the number of virtual schools is growing exponentially, experts caution that the results are failing to keep up with the rapid expansion of these cyber classrooms.

“When virtual schools were first coming on the scene, the results looked better,” says Western Michigan Professor Gary Miron, one of the authors of the report. “It now appears that early adopters of the virtual school model were largely home-schoolers who were used to studying alone and who generally had lots of parental guidance. As virtual schools have expanded, it appears that their performance has slipped dramatically.”

The report, which compiled research and studies from some of the leading educational experts in the country, found that students attending virtual schools perform much worse than their peers at traditional brick-and-mortar public schools. Only 23.6 percent of virtual schools made Adequate Yearly Progress (AYP) in 2010-2011, the measurement that determines whether schools have met the minimum academic standards under the No Child Left Behind Act. 52 percent of traditional and charter schools made AYP in the same academic year, more than double the success rate for virtual schools.

Virtual schools were also found to have a disproportionately high number of white students—almost 75 percent, compared to the national mean of 54 percent—even though they have a large presence in states with high Latino populations, such as Arizona, Florida and California. Further findings demonstrated an even greater slant in the students that were ultimately registered for online courses—cyber schools were shown to accept special education students, low-income students, and English Language Learners at significantly lower percentages than traditional public schools.

The report points out that, even with a lack of previous research examining the validity of an online education, legislators—often at the urging of the controversial American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC)—have been pushing bills on the state levels for several years.

“At this point, technological and business model innovations have far outpaced research on the impact of virtual teaching and learning,” says the report’s executive summary. “Yet even though little is known about the efficacy of online education generally or about individual approaches specifically, states are moving quickly to expand taxpayer-funded virtual education programs.”

Between 2008 and 2012, states across the country passed 157 bills relating to an online or virtual education. Because virtual schools are seen as under the purview of the states, these schools are treated as public institutions and receive funds to operate. Since the majority of virtual schools are run by for-profit organizations, the study is quick to show that these schools frequently use state education funds to bolster their own profits. The report profiles a study done by Kantar Media that shows that the 10 largest cyber school providers spent roughly $100 million dollars the last five years on advertising—taxpayer money that came from the same coffers that fund public schools.

With a steady flow of funds and next to no overhead expenses, virtual schools and the organizations behind them have been able to profit from offering a shoddy education. States are easing up on restricting enrollment caps for virtual schools while providing no further accountability measures to ensure their efficiency, resulting in more money being diverted from the public schools that need all the funding they can get.

“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,” says Stanford University professor Larry Cuban, one of the authors of the report. “Unfortunately, good politics does not automatically result in good policy.”