The Future of Virtual Charter Schools

Virtual charter schools are controversial, no matter how you look at it. They’re controversial here in Arkansas and in every other state as well. Arkansas currently has only one virtual charter school, Arkansas Virtual Academy, which is affiliated with the Virginia-based, for-profit company, K12. For years, the school has operated under a student enrollment cap of 500, serving students in grades K-8. The school has repeatedly tried to expand their enrollment cap and to add grades 9-12. Because these restrictions were contained in Special Language in the Department of Education’s public school fund appropriation, the school was not under the control of the State Board of Education, as all other charter schools are. During the 2011 legislative session, that changed, and the legislature removed the cap and gave the discretion to expand enrollment to the State Board. In June of 2011, the Arkansas Virtual Academy asked the State Board to expand the cap to 1,500. That request was denied.

Dissatisfied with the State Board’s decision, the legislature took back that authority during this past session. Section 24 in Special Language of the public school fund appropriation, Act 1309, dictates that beginning with the 2013-2014 school year, the Virtual Academy can enroll up to 3,000 students in grades K-12. We don’t really know where these students will come from. Some will come from public schools, but some may come from private and home schools, which could result in a significant fiscal impact for the state.

Proponents of virtual schools argue that they give parents a choice and can provide students with an individualized education. Opponents argue that  there is a lack of student support and accountability, and many are concerned that some of the companies that support these virtual schools, such as K12, are for-profit, unlike other charter schools that must be operated by non-profit entities.

Last week, the Governor Pat Quinn (D) of Illinois signed a bill that created a moratorium on new virtual charter schools in Illinois outside the city of Chicago until April of 2014. The legislation requires the state to study the impact of virtual charter schools, especially as it relates to student achievement and fiscal impact. This is in contrast to Michigan Governor Rick Snyder’s (R) signing of a bill earlier this month that drastically expands the cap on enrollment and the number of virtual schools in that state.

Because of the inconsistencies in funding, enrollment, and accountability in virtual schools in each state throughout the country, there’s a lack of data and research available on the effectiveness of these schools. Are virtual schools the answer to many of our students’ educational problems, or do they simply provide a high profit margin with our tax dollars for for-profit companies? I guess only time will tell.


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