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With virtual charter enrollment on the rise, testing coordinators aim to stay informed for potential assessment impact. Enrollment in virtual charter schools has grown faster than at in-person charter and traditional schools, with the pandemic accelerating that growth. A recent report from the Government Accountability Office reports important findings and recommendations for increasing the quality of virtual charter schools and holding them accountable for student outcomes. Get the highlights below:

Enrollment growth

  • Enrollment in full-time virtual schools increased by about 34,600 students between 2017-18 and 2019-20. 
  • Just four states — California, Ohio, Oklahoma, and Pennsylvania — enrolled over 50% of all virtual charter school students.
  • The hallmark of the charter school movement is innovation, which of course cannot come at the cost of student achievement.
  • Given the disruption to traditional schools due to COVID-19, virtual charter school enrollment is likely to continue to climb for the next few years before leveling off. 
  • The pandemic caused a bump from students whose families otherwise would not have chosen virtual charter schools because virtual charter schools were experienced in remote learning. 

The Data

  • Public virtual charter schools schools students lagged behind their peers at traditional public and charter schools during the 2018-19 school year (pre-pandemic)
  • U.S. Department of Education should analyze and address barriers to attendance.
  • Improved data quality virtual charter schools’ financial and programming risks can be minimized.

Elevated risks

  • The financial and programming risks for virtual charter schools are particularly high when schools contract with for-profit management companies.
  • Report found inaccuracies and underreporting of management companies in the data it reviewed.
  • The challenges of measuring attendance in virtual charter schools could have financial consequences affecting the amount of certain state and federal funds a school receives.

GAO’s recommendations

  • Examine lower assessment participation rates in virtual charter schools. 
  • Ensure that states report comparable attendance information. 
  • Help states report accurate information on charter schools’ contracts with management organizations. 

Improving quality

  • With the rise of virtual learning, many resources have been provided:
  • Student performance in virtual charter schools will improve as a broader group of students choose the virtual charter schools option.
  • While there could be value in Education Department regulations specifically for virtual charter schools, the biggest difference in improving quality could come from state-level action for accountability mechanisms, policy and authorizing structures.
  • “We support the accountability of all public schools including traditional district schools, virtual public schools, brick-and-mortar public charter schools, and virtual public charter schools.”
  • The focus should be on outcomes.

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