Two Democrat Senators Put Pressure on Government to Investigate Virtual Charters

By Cait Etherington
October 13, 2018

As virtual charter schools continue to grow, so does the controversy concerning their ability to meet baseline standards. It is on this basis that two Democrat senators have decided enough is and enough. On October 10, Democratic Senator Patty Murray from Washington and Senator Sherrod Brown from Ohio asked the Government Accountability Office to investigate virtual charters. Their hope is that a thorough investigation will shed light on what is actually happening in these schools and lead to higher standards and greater transparency.

Senator Murray and Senator Brown’s Letter Highlights Multiple Concerns

In a letter dated October 10, the senators argue that although virtual charter schools represent a small percentage of American schools, they continue to grow and by and large, they continue to perform much worse than other schools.

According to Senator Murray and Senator Brown, “Research on virtual charter schools shows that students attending such schools perform much worse than their peers receiving in-person instruction in traditional, brick-and-mortar public schools.” They back up their claim by citing a 2015 CREDO study that found students in virtual charter schools experience 180 fewer days of learning in math (this is equivalent to a full school year) and 72 fewer days learning in reading compared to peers at traditional public schools. Senator Murray and Senator Brown’s letter further notes, “The student to teacher ratio can be astronomically higher in many of these schools. For example, the average ratio is 45 students to l teacher in virtual charter schools – compared to the national average ratio of 16-to-1 in 5traditional public schools – but some virtual charter schools report ratios of closer to 275 to 1.”

Beyond concerns about attendance and class size, Senator Murray and Senator Brown note that virtual charters continue to be plagued by a lack of accountability.  Among other recent scandals, they point to the situation at K12 Inc. where six top executives took home $20 million in compensation in 2017. However, as they note, while such information is available for K12 Inc. since it is a publicly traded company, records for most virtual charters are not even available.

The call for action from Senator Murray and Senator Brown comes on the heels of bad news at several virtual charter schools. In September, Nevada Virtual Academy announced that it would shut down its elementary school after receiving another one-star rating from the Nevada Department of Education.  Earlier this year, Electronic Classroom of Tomorrow (ECOT) shut down after years of over-inflating their full-time students, thereby taking in more tax payer dollars than they were due. While poor performance is an ongoing issue at many virtual charters, so is enrollment reporting.

Senators Ask Government Accountability Office to Investigate Virtual Charters

The Senators are now calling the Government Accountability Office to investigate virtual charters in the hopes of finding out what is actually happening in these online schools.

To begin, they want the Government Accountability Office to investigate how virtual charter schools recruit students, compensate recruiters and enrollment advisors, target particular student groups, and discuss the education program with families to determine if the school is a good fit for students’ needs and circumstances.

Another demand is to identify the apparent relationship between the rate of growth at particular virtual charter schools and their academic performance, as well as their recruiting tactics, recruiter compensation, and advertising. The letter further calls on the Government Accountability Office to investigate virtual charters with a focus on how their structure may or may not take into account or incentivize stronger student outcomes.

Senator Murray and Senator Brown’s letter also calls for a thorough examination of the vendor relationships between charter school authorizers, virtual charter schools, and their management companies and whether there is a trend of conflicts of interest between vendors and charter school leadership or oversight bodies. Other stated concerns regard student outcomes at virtual charter schools, access to additional supports and accommodations, the academic rigor of courses, mechanisms for charting attendance and not surprisingly, the amount of federal, state, and local funding virtual charter schools currently receive.
If the Government Accountability Office agrees to investigate virtual charters, the results of the investigation should shed increased light on what is actually happening in the nation’s online K-12 schools.