Center for American Progress

Increasing Transparency and Accountability for Virtual Charter Schools

Increasing Transparency and Accountability for Virtual Charter Schools

Neil Campbell, former director of innovation for K-12 Education Policy at CAP, testified before the Nevada Legislature in support of S.B. 441.

The transcript below is of an oral testimony originally published in the minutes of the Nevada Senate Committee on Education:

[excerpt_box]The Center for American Progress is a progressive think tank in Washington, D.C. where my work focuses on issues such as policies to support and grow high-performing charter schools and redesigning high schools to more effectively engage students and prepare them for success in college, careers and life.

Last year, my colleague Meg Benner and I published a report on virtual charter schools titled “Profit Before Kids” (Exhibit H) which built on the growing body of research and media reports showing that on average fully virtual schools perform much worse than brick-and-mortar schools serving similar populations of students. At the same time, laws and regulations have not kept pace with the growth of these virtual schools allowing the for-profit entities running many of them to focus on increasing profits at the cost of student outcomes.

One of the studies we highlighted came from Stanford’s Center for Research on Education Outcomes. This alarming nationwide study compared virtual school students to similar peers in public schools. The effect of attending a virtual school on academic growth was similar to missing 72 days of instruction in reading and 180 days in math. In Nevada, the results in reading were even worse. Virtual school students missed the equivalent of 120 days of learning while the math results were similar to the national average.

These lackluster results have been accompanied by controversies across the Country. In Colorado, an investigation by Education Week discovered that GOAL Academy, the largest virtual school in that state, graduated less than 40 percent of its students. This was even with a program they called “FAST and Furious” that allowed students to earn a year’s worth of credit in one week by doing things like creating a six-slide PowerPoint presentation. In Ohio, the state’s largest virtual charter school was shut down last year when it was unable to repay the state over $60 million for students whose attendance it could not verify.

Why do these controversies keep occurring? We believe the incentives of a for-profit business model are a terrible fit for virtual schools that can rapidly grow without the constraint of finding new facilities. In order to understand how these incentives play out, our report then dug into the public financial reporting from K-12 Inc., the Nation’s largest virtual school operator and operator of Nevada Virtual Academy. In order to keep growing their schools, K-12, Inc., a company educating less than one-third of the students in CCSD, spent $38 million on advertising in FY 2018. Compensation for the top 5 executives was over $15 million. The only way student success factored into that compensation was that minimizing the percentage of schools at risk of closure could earn higher payouts.

In Nevada, while the State averages 23 students per teacher, the 2 largest virtual schools which do not have any of the costs associated with school buildings or transportation have ratios of 34 and 38 students per teacher. That means a high school history teacher could expect to have at least 170 to 190 students in those schools. If that teacher spends 10 minutes talking or emailing with each student, 5 minutes reviewing each student’s work and does nothing else all week; that is already a workweek of 42 to 48 hours.

To be sure, there are instances where virtual learning may be a good fit for some students and families. But acknowledging that does not mean the schools have to be managed the way too many virtual schools are today. Students and taxpayers deserve better.

Our report concluded with a series of recommendations such as banning for-profit operators of virtual charter schools, implementing rigorous transparency and accountability for all virtual charter schools and prohibiting incentive compensation for student enrollment.

The goals of S.B. 441 would increase transparency and accountability for virtual charter schools. Limiting Statewide programs to a single Statewide authorizer is an important objective to prevent “authorizer shopping.” Allowing the charter school authority to create separate requirements for distance education programs is another valuable aim. They can better understand how students are engaging with and progressing through their distance education program.

Finally, it is a worthy goal to allow the charter school authority to withhold a portion of funding from charter schools for distance education when students disengage and fail to make academic progress.[/excerpt_box]

Status of legislation: S.B. 441 was introduced on March 25, 2019, and referred to the Nevada Committee on Education. It was later signed by the governor and went into effect on June 1, 2019

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Neil Campbell

Director, Innovation