Fix Online Charter School Policy: It’s Past Time

Today CREDO, Mathematica Policy Research, and CRPE released three papers as part of the first comprehensive rigorous national study of online charter schools. The findings show that even using the most careful methods given the available data, the results for online charter schools are very bad.

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In nearly every state, CREDO’s results show that students are much worse off as a result of attending an online charter school. The negative effects are similar in magnitude to the positive effects achieved by some of the most effective charter schools (e.g., KIPP). Mathematica’s survey of online school leaders gives important insight as to why students may not be making gains: online charter schools offer only 3 to 6 hours of “synchronous” (teachers and students in “live” contact online) instruction per week; school leaders say they struggle the most with student engagement; and it’s clear that parents are expected to play an active role in instruction and in making sure that students stay on track. This hands-off instructional model works for some students but clearly not for most.

In our paper, we examined the legal and regulatory context for online charter schools. In our review of state charter and online laws, we found that online schools represent an important opportunity for innovation in ways to organize learning outside the traditional boundaries of building and classroom. Students experiencing life disruptions like pregnancy, illness, and other challenges need good online options. However, online charter schools also create challenges in oversight within the charter regulatory context, where

• open admissions laws prevent online schools from screening for students who are most likely to thrive in an online environment.
• accountability and oversight provisions are not well suited to the challenges of overseeing schools that operate with dramatically different roles for teachers and students.
• funding mechanisms create incentives for large class sizes and potentially significant profits whether or not online providers perform well.

We identified the need for model legislation to address these and other oversight issues and we urge states to consider taking online schools out of the charter regulatory structure entirely. The goal should be to address legitimate concerns about online schools without needlessly restricting their overall growth and autonomy. Right now, states are much more inclined to stop authorizing online schools at all, which would close off the possibility that these schools could work well in the future under better oversight. That would be a shame.

As my Mathematica colleague Brian Gill has said, the results from this study show that most online charter schools don’t work in their current context, but they don’t show that they can’t work. The challenge is to figure out how the next generation of online schools can deliver better results and whether the charter school sector is the right home for that experimentation.

—Robin Lake

This post originally appeared on the blog of

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