Education Week - September 16, 2020 - 8
In Virtual Schools
By Mark Lieberman
The numbers are striking and consistent: Online learning providers
are seeing a boom in enrollment as
parents seek an alternative to chaotic
remote school experiences this spring.
Florida Virtual School's enrollment
is up 54 percent year over year for its
individual online course offerings and
64 percent for full-time programs.
Public schools' online programs managed by the for-profit provider K12
Inc. have grown from 122,000 course
enrollments in fall 2019 to 170,000
a year later. Applications to Connections Academy, a virtual school provider owned by Pearson, are up 61
The Pennsylvania Cyber Charter
School filled up months before it usually starts receiving the bulk of new
applicants. An Oklahoma virtual charter school earlier this summer was
enrolling 1,000 students a day. Enrollment in virtual schools is also up
in Connecticut, Ohio, and Wisconsin.
While comprehensive data likely
won't be available until the fall, early
indications suggest families are flocking in greater numbers than ever before to virtual schools.
Their advantage is partly one of
longevity: Florida Virtual School, the
nation's first statewide online public
school, was established in 1997, and
Connections Academy and K12 Inc.,
among other providers, have been offering full-time online instruction for
much of the last two decades.
"A longstanding virtual provider
that can describe with clarity and consistency what that experience is going
to be may be able to make a stronger
pitch than a district who says, 'We're
still figuring this out,'" said Bree Dusseault, a practitioner-in-residence
researching online learning as well as
charter schools for the University of
Washington's Center on Reinventing
Virtual providers anticipated an onslaught of new enrollments this fall,
and planned accordingly. Florida Virtual School hired 320 new instructors
this summer and upgraded its servers
to expand capacity. The school also
extended its July enrollment deadline
by one week to give families more
time to decide where students will
learn this school year.
As a state-run public institution that
also licenses content and expertise to
districts nationwide, Florida Virtual
School (FLVS) is bolstering districts'
online efforts as much as serving as
an alternative to them. "We do feel a
responsibility as the online leader in
education to be able to help other districts that may not have had the same
experience," said Courtney Calfee,
the senior director of partner services
for the FLVS Global School, which
serves students worldwide.
Other public programs have grown
significantly after slow starts prior to
the pandemic. Gaston County schools
in North Carolina opened a virtual
school in 2017 and had enrolled 100
students within two years. In the last
month, the school has increased its enrollment to 5,300 students-more than
1 in 6 of the district's total number of
students, the Gaston Gazette reported.
Enrollment in the private schools
run by K12 Inc., as well as districts'
interest in contracting with the company, have also increased in recent
months, according to Jeanna Pignatiello, the company's the senior vice
president and chief academic officer.
Pearson has also ramped up its efforts to partner with districts on providing its online expertise. Nik Osborne,
an executive at the company since
2016, in June entered a new role as general manager of district partnerships.
Some of the company's partner districts are focusing on short-term solutions to the immediate need for online
instruction, while others-mostly
small or medium-sized districts-are
essentially hiring Pearson's online
teachers for students who will be learning remotely for the foreseeable future.
Established virtual school providers
point to their comprehensive learning
management systems, experienced
teachers, and emphasis on live teaching as examples of the groundwork
they've laid for years to keep students
engaged long-term without being in
a physical school building. Osborne
said Pearson's programs also have a
track record of providing club and
extracurricular opportunities for students that might not be priorities for
schools still refining the basics of remote instruction.
But while their robust online offerings may have enticed some public
school families, virtual charters in particular have long been criticized for a
track record of subpar academic outcomes, according to research published
by Education Week, Stanford University's Center for Research on Education
Outcomes, and Mathematica.
Caution may be in order when
choosing an alternative school option
for students. "There are parents saying
to themselves, 'What is better for me?
Do I go virtual with a school that has no
experience with online learning, or do
I go virtual with a school that has built
an infrastructure and does have some
experience?'" said Debbie Veney, senior vice president of communications
8 | EDUCATION WEEK | September 16, 2020 | www.edweek.org
Jae C. Hong/AP
Providers anticipated new students
and made plans for the demand
A Los Angeles Unified School District
student solves a math problem
in an online class. During COVID-19,
school districts across the country
face increasing competition
for students from virtual schools.
and marketing at the National Alliance
for Public Charter Schools.
Though they've dealt with the same
laptop delays and internet connectivity issues that have plagued public
schools' remote learning efforts since
March, leaders of these schools say
the virtual school year is off to a strong
Shortly before the pandemic, several states and cities were cracking
down on virtual charter providers.
Chicago had shut down the city's only
virtual charter school, and Pennsylvania's governor in October ordered the
closure of a low-performing virtual
school and vowed to strengthen accountability for virtual charters.
But the pandemic has given some
virtual charters a new lease on life.
Nevada's charter school board
voted in March to close the Connections Academy's virtual middle and
high schools there after they received
low performance ratings, but in May
partially reversed that decision and allowed the high school to stay open for
three more years. Rebecca Feiden, executive director of the state's charter
school authority, said the importance
of consistency for students during the
pandemic factored into the reversal,
the Nevada Current reported.
However, some virtual school expansion plans have not succeeded.
For instance, several state school
board members and the lieutenant
governor of North Carolina this summer pushed to increase the enrollment cap for the state's two virtual
school programs by 3,800 students.
But a majority of the board voted
against the proposal, arguing that it
would lead to money lost for public
school districts and place thousands
more students in a program that had
received a "D" grade from the state.
Disputes Over Funding
As state and local budgets have
tightened due to the ongoing economic downturn, disputes over fund-
ing for virtual charters have broken
out in several states. A Pennsylvania
state lawmaker in July announced
a planned bill that would allocate
this school year's funding for virtual
charter schools based on their enrollment on July 1.
"Cyber charter schools do not face
the same financial needs that publicschool districts face to commence
in-person learning in an area of the
novel coronavirus," wrote State Rep.
Virtual schools have also petitioned lawmakers in Oregon to
overturn a law that allows districts
to deny new enrollments in virtual
schools if more than 3 percent of the
student population in that district enrolls in an out-of-district virtual charter school option. At least 10 districts
in the state meet that threshold, the
Statesman Journal reported.
Charter advocates argue that funding should follow students wherever
they choose to attend school. But
the mechanisms to allocate perpupil funding for districts weren't
designed for the current emergency
context of families scrambling to find
the best among a sea of imperfect options, said Bryan Mann, an assistant
professor of education at the University of Kansas.
Mann believes public school districts should be reimbursed for
students who migrate elsewhere in
search of better remote learning experiences in the short term. Pennsylvania previously reimbursed school
districts for funding lost when students opted for charter schools.
"If these funding mechanisms designed with a school year in mind,
or for kids permanently leaving the
district, are now what we're using for
this temporary situation, it could really hurt districts in ways that could
inhibit their recovery efforts on the
back end," Mann said.
Dusseault from the University of
Washington says she's seen a handful of districts posting on their websites that enrollment remains open
as numbers appear to be down. But
she doesn't want to definitively declare that virtual schools have captured an onslaught of public school
departures. "It's really possible that
the districts that are really being
proactive are more effective at
staving off virtual charter competition and retaining students," she
Most public school districts are
offering students a full-time virtual
option of some kind, whether managed in-house or by an outside provider, according to research from
Dusseault's organization. While few
traditional school districts have offered online learning to the extent
that's currently necessary, many have
previously offered online options for
credit recovery, student athletes,
and independent study, Mann said.
Some have online offerings that resemble or even replicate what students would experience in virtual
The demographics of new cyber
charter students aren't yet known,
but Mann's academic research in
Pennsylvania offers some clues. Districts that saw the largest number of
students leaving for cyber charters
tended to be ones at a financial disadvantage and with a large population of adults with low levels of educational attainment, he said.
"Those students you would expect
would need the most support, the
most in-person interaction, when
they would leave, they're the ones
who struggle the most in an online
setting," Mann said.
It's still too early to identify trends
among families opting for virtual
schools, or whether parents are factoring in virtual charters' troubling track
record around academic achievement
when making those decisions.
Parents are no longer deciding between a district's traditional offerings
and a virtual school alternative, Dusseault said: "They are comparing it to
a district in a totally unprecedented
Coverage of how parents work with
educators, community leaders and
policymakers to make informed decisions
about their children's education is
supported by a grant from the Walton
Family Foundation, at waltonk12.org.
Education Week retains sole editorial
control over the content of this coverage.
Education Week - September 16, 2020
Table of Contents for the Digital Edition of Education Week - September 16, 2020
Education Week - September 16, 2020
Mask Fatigue and No High-Fives: Teachers Discuss the Hardest Parts of In-Person School During COVID-19
New Players Fill Child-Care Gap As Schools Go Remote
COVID-19 Fuels Enrollment Increases in Virtual Schools
Districts Struggle to Keep Tabs on COVID-19 Cases in Schools, Communities
Districts Offer Cash to Families Who Skip the School Bus
Teacher Morale and Student Enrollment Declining Under COVID-19, Survey Shows
Teachers, Live Screen Time is Precious. Use It Well
When Black Lives Only Matter Conditionally
EdWeek Top School Jobs
How Ready Are We to Support Kids?
Education Week - September 16, 2020 - Education Week - September 16, 2020
Education Week - September 16, 2020 - Briefly Stated
Education Week - September 16, 2020 - 3
Education Week - September 16, 2020 - Mask Fatigue and No High-Fives: Teachers Discuss the Hardest Parts of In-Person School During COVID-19
Education Week - September 16, 2020 - 5
Education Week - September 16, 2020 - New Players Fill Child-Care Gap As Schools Go Remote
Education Week - September 16, 2020 - 7
Education Week - September 16, 2020 - COVID-19 Fuels Enrollment Increases in Virtual Schools
Education Week - September 16, 2020 - 9
Education Week - September 16, 2020 - Districts Struggle to Keep Tabs on COVID-19 Cases in Schools, Communities
Education Week - September 16, 2020 - 11
Education Week - September 16, 2020 - Districts Offer Cash to Families Who Skip the School Bus
Education Week - September 16, 2020 - 13
Education Week - September 16, 2020 - Teacher Morale and Student Enrollment Declining Under COVID-19, Survey Shows
Education Week - September 16, 2020 - 15
Education Week - September 16, 2020 - Teachers, Live Screen Time is Precious. Use It Well
Education Week - September 16, 2020 - 17
Education Week - September 16, 2020 - When Black Lives Only Matter Conditionally
Education Week - September 16, 2020 - 19
Education Week - September 16, 2020 - 20
Education Week - September 16, 2020 - 21
Education Week - September 16, 2020 - 22
Education Week - September 16, 2020 - EdWeek Top School Jobs
Education Week - September 16, 2020 - How Ready Are We to Support Kids?