Widely Publicized Critique of Virtual Schools Seriously Flawed

Matthew M. Chingos  MChingos@brookings.edu Brookings Institution
Janice B. Riddell (203) 912-8675 janice_riddell@hks.harvard.edu, External Relations, Education Next

Widely Publicized Critique of Virtual Schools Seriously Flawed

Evidence used in report on K12 Inc. presents misleading information about how much students learn

CAMBRIDGE, MA—Full-time virtual schools, which have expanded over the past decade and now enroll approximately 250,000 students, have attracted a level of scrutiny that is given to many educational innovations, particularly when a for-profit element is involved.  A recent report by the National Education Policy Center (NEPC) on the largest for-profit operator of these schools, K12 Inc., has urged states to “slow or put a moratorium on the growth of full-time virtual schools.”  However, a new analysis shows that NEPC uses misleading performance measures and financial criteria to discredit K12, thereby failing to make a persuasive case for stifling the virtual school sector’s growth.

The analysis of the NEPC report, prepared by Matthew M. Chingos of the Brookings Institution’s Brown Center on Education Policy, will appear in the Spring 2013 issue of Education Next and is currently available online at www.educationnext.org.

It is not possible for parents or policymakers to ascertain virtual school quality from the data included in the NEPC report, Chingos writes.  NEPC notes, for example, that 70 percent of 8th-grade students at K12 schools met proficiency standards in reading, as compared to 77 percent in all public schools in the same states in which K12 operates.  Such statewide “snapshot” comparisons leaves unexamined the more relevant comparison to the scores at the neighborhood schools of the K12 students—the schools they would have likely attended had the choice of a full-time virtual school not been available.  Moreover, it provides inadequate information as to whether the virtual students have backgrounds similar to the students with whom they are being compared.

The report says that K12 schools spend more on instructional costs but less on teacher salaries and benefits, and more on administration but less on administrator salaries and benefits.  It refers to these differences as “cost advantages” and “disadvantages.”  But Chingos points out that K12 schools receive an average of $7,393 in public revenue per student, 37 percent less than the district school average of $11,708.  To call that a cost advantage, he says, “is like telling a poor person that he has a ‘cost advantage’ relative to a wealthier individual.”

The report under review is “Understanding and Improving Full-Time Virtual Schools,” by Gary Miron and Jessica L. Urschel, July 18, 2012, available at: http://nepc.colorado.edu/publication/understanding-improving-virtual

About the Author

Matthew M. Chingos is a Fellow in the Brookings Institution’s Brown Center on Education Policy.  He is available for interviews.

About Education Next

Education Next is a scholarly journal published by the Hoover Institution that is committed to careful examination of evidence relating to school reform.  Other collaborating institutions are the Program on Education Policy and Governance at Harvard University, part of the Taubman Center for State and Local Government at the Harvard Kennedy School, and the Thomas B. Fordham Foundation.  For more information about Education Next, please visit:  www.educationnext.org.

For more information on the Program on Education Policy and Governance contact Antonio Wendland at 617-495-7976, pepg_administrator@hks.harvard.edu, or visit www.hks.harvard.edu/pepg.

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