Scandals at virtual schools do little to spur accountability measures

Alyse DiNapoli
4 min readJun 7, 2019


An annual report on virtual education released last week reinforces the need for oversight and accountability in a growing niche market. But recent scandals among online institutions have done little to spur action from state or federal officials.

The Nation Education Policy Center publishes an annual report on virtual education in an effort to provide oversight on cyber school performance. The report, which has been published every year since 2013, evaluates the status of K-12 online learning and offers recommendations on how statewide policymakers can enforce higher standards.

While there were some improvements from the year prior, data for the 2017–18 school year reveals that about half of full-time virtual schools have acceptable student performance ratings. The report also notes about half virtual school students graduate, compared to the national average of 84%.

While the findings are not drastically different from previous years, Michael Barbour, co-author of the report and associate professor at Touro University, said the need for more oversight is as strong as ever.

“Year after year, we continue to find that these programs are growing and they’re still not performing and there is still little to no accountability or oversight for them,” he said. “It’s really striking that you’d think, after a while, we’d start to see some changes come from these findings. But for some reason, it just hasn’t.”

A recent example comes from Ohio, where the Electronic Classroom of Tomorrow virtual school allegedly over-reported its enrollment numbers by 9,000 students. Because the virtual school system receives funding per pupil, state officials ordered it to repay roughly $80 million in state funding. Unable to do so, the school closed up shop last year.

Two of Indiana’s virtual schools also received millions of dollars in funding for students who didn’t end up earning any credits.

But despite the bad apples making headlines, John Watson, founder of Evergreen Education Group, which also conducts research on virtual schools, said the NEPC’s recommendation to enforce sanctions on low-performing schools is not necessarily the solution. While there is certainly evidence suggesting students enrolled in full-time virtual schools have lower graduation rates and student performance, there are many types of digital learning programs that should be evaluated separately.

The NEPC report data provides categorization on virtual school structures, including charters, district-run schools, full-time online programs and blended learning (programs that combine a mixture of face-to-face and online instruction). That data show about 29% of virtual schools run by for-profit organizations have acceptable school performance ratings, while that percentage is roughly 57% for online schools run by school districts.

Watson also pointed out that the NEPC research data cannot quantify the trying life circumstances of many students enrolled in virtual schools. A 2018 study by the Oklahoma Virtual Charter School Board found that 41% of surveyed participants cited bullying and classmate threats as reasons for switching to an online school. Watson contends that the resulting mental health issues, such as depression or anxiety, may contribute to lower academic performance, and that online schools shoulder the burden for getting them caught up.

Despite this, the NEPC report still suggests halting the growth of virtual schools until more research is available. But there is little evidence that the pace of new virtual schools will lessen, as legislators are not consulting academic research to craft new policy.

“Even in areas where we do have a significant number of researchers that are addressing specific questions that policymakers and legislators have asked them to look into, the folks that are making the legislation and policies still ignore what the research says in favor of things that the lobbyists for these companies are giving them,” Barbour said.

Michigan is among states that have seen an increase in virtual school options, despite data showing issues in student performance. The Michigan Virtual Learning Research Institute, which receives state funding to track the effectiveness of virtual programs, reports that the student pass rate has steadily declined from 66% in the 2010–11 school year to 55% in the 2017–18 school year. Yet the number of virtual schools in the state has almost doubled. From roughly 2015 to 2016, the DeVos family — who are well-known “school choice” advocates — made state-level political contributions that were five times greater than the Michigan Education Association. Their super PAC, Great Lakes Education Project, has been instrumental in advocating for charter school policy.

The viability of virtual schools is paramount in Michigan, as 79% of online students are enrolled in a virtual charter school.

But while lobbying expenditures certainly influence legislative outcomes, one of the biggest and quickest drivers of new policies come from public investigations and lawsuits.

The findings in Ohio and Indiana led both state legislatures to pass bills adjusting funding formulas and enhancing accountability measures for online schools. A scandal involving the inflation of enrollment numbers by California Virtual Academies — managed by K12 Inc., the nation’s largest for-profit virtual school provider — was the impetus behind a 2017 bill in California banning for-profit charters throughout the state.

Watson said a compromise between the “school choice” option and excessive regulation — or a complete ban on virtual schools — would be legislation requiring virtual schools to make student performance metrics readily available for educators and parents. That compromise — which he said is beginning to occur — allows parents of students to base their decisions on good information and necessitate few, if any, punitive actions against underperforming schools.

Those steps toward more accountability show students and parents prefer more transparency with virtual schools — something most state leaders have not prioritized.

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