The Great Lake Center for Education Research and Practice finds that full-time virtual schools are expanding despite no high-quality evidence that they are effective.
The report – "Online K-12 Schooling in the U.S.: Uncertain Private Ventures in Need of Public Regulation" – authored by University of Colorado education professors Gene V. Glass and Kevin G. Welner, shows that full-time "cyber schools" are now operating in 27 cash-strapped states and school districts.
Schools looking to trim budgets often use online education as a lower-cost alternative to traditional public schools. Some of these full-time virtual schools have no face-to-face contact between students and teachers.
"Private operators are gaining access to large streams of public revenue to run cyber schools," Glass said. "But school districts are not getting full information on the actual costs of these programs, so it's not clear if taxpayer money is being used effectively — or properly."
In states such as Florida, virtual schools are used as a loophole in laws that limit the size of classes. Cyber schools are subject to only minimal government oversight, according to the report.
"No matter where they live or in what form they receive instruction, all students deserve quality teachers, supported by a rigorous program of accreditation and accountability," Welner said.
In the report, Glass and Welner offered several recommendations for state legislators and other policymakers in light of the growing popularity. The recommendations are contained in model legislation released by University of Kentucky educator professor and attorney Justin Bathon. These recommendations include:
Financial audits of cyber schools to determine their actual per-student expenses, so school districts can determine appropriate reimbursement.
Authentication of student work: An online instructor, whether located in the U.S. or abroad, has no way to determine whether work submitted via computer was performed by the student enrolled in the class.
Accreditation: To avoid abuses that have been found in other proprietary schools – such as truck driving and cosmetology academies – traditional high school accrediting agencies and state and federal departments of education should work together to develop a rigorous approach to accreditation of both part- and full-time cyber schools.
"We have to make sure that cyber schools don't become just a cheap way of providing second-rate service to disadvantaged schools and students," Glass said.
The report and the model legislation were produced by the National Education Policy Center, housed at the University of Colorado at Boulder School of Education, with funding from the Great Lakes Center for Education Research and Practice.