With the ESSA Set to Roll Out, Few States Have Dealt With Virtual Charter Schools in their New Legislation

By Henry Kronk
May 05, 2018

After a few hiccups and delays, the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA) is set to take full effect this coming school year. The rewrite of No Child Left Behind (and reauthorization of the 1965 Elementary and Secondary Education Act) is the first education bill since the ‘80s to limit federal control of education and hand more power to the states. It was passed largely as a response to the culture of ‘teaching to the test’ created by NCLB and seeks to allow states to handle measures of quality on their own. But, according to Micah Wixom, a specialist in school choice for the Education Commission of the States (ECS), there’s one area in which state lawmakers appear uncertain: virtual charter schools.

“States aren’t necessarily clamoring to start new virtual charter schools. Kentucky passed a charter school bill a few years ago that banned their virtual counterparts. It’s a good example of a state saying, ‘We’re not really sure how to proceed, so let’s just not do this right now.’”

ECS is a non-partisan, non-profit commission and Wixom spoke as objectively as possible. Her job is to track what states are doing in regard to education, not what they should do. In January, she put together a broad collection of information on state charter school policy, which should prove an invaluable resource for anyone interested in the subject.

Virtual Charter Schools Could Use a Second (or First) Thought from States

ESSA“It’s fairly clear that virtual charter schools don’t perform very well,” Wixom said. “Some do, but overall, it’s fairly clear that they tend not to do as well as their peers. States are aware of that, but they also seem to be unsure on how to best regulate them.”

Like Kentucky, many states have banned virtual charter schools outright. Other states have put together very specific guidelines for how they should operate. Oregon, for example, has extensive stipulations, including: providing students with computer, printer, and internet access; opportunities for students and teachers to meet at a minimum of 6 times a year; and a minimum of 6 optional educational experiences, such as field trips, per year.

“Oklahoma has also done interesting things,” Wixom said. “They have a state board specifically for virtual charter schools, not many states have done that. It’s an interesting approach because virtual charter schools are—some would say—quite different from brick-and-mortar schools. So the kinds of issues they face and their oversight will be different.”

Exceptions that Prove the Rule

Still, Wixom says that these states are exceptions. Besides banning them outright, many states have only tentative, basic legislation in place for them. Six states—Montana, Nebraska, North Dakota, South Dakota, Vermont, and West Virginia—have no legislation relating to virtual charter schools at all.

Even charter school authorizers often struggle to handle virtual charter schools effectively. These are the entities that determine whether or not a charter school follows a set of standards.

Many charter school authorizers are unsure of how to handle them and what to do.

“They will approve or disapprove a virtual charter school performance,” Wixom said. “They’ll be the one who, in some cases will close them down. Some states will say that only certain authorizers can oversee a virtual charter school. Some states have a number of authorizers.” But again, more states still appear not to know how to deal with them.