Will the Virtual School Movement Make the Same Mistakes as the Charter School Movement?

National School Choice week is a good opportunity to reflect on what we’ve learned from the past twenty years of charter schooling. In “Lessons for Online Learning,” my colleague Bill Tucker and I focus on what the charter school movement can teach the rapidly growing virtual education movement—particularly about the importance of focusing on quality as much as on growth.

Much like charter schooling ten years ago, virtual education is expanding rapidly, with new providers entering the market and student enrollments growing. A recent analysis of the ‘e-learning’ market found that it grew by 5.9% over the past five years. And for K-12 online learning that growth rate was much higher—16.8%, the highest of any of the e-learning market segments. But what the virtual education movement is missing is a clear definition of quality that can be used to evaluate these new and growing providers and hold them accountable for student outcomes. And without an accountability mechanism, the virtual education movement risks rapid growth coming at the expense of quality.

The lack of an accountability mechanism combined with the current fiscal situation of most states makes this is a particularly dangerous time for virtual learning. While some of the rapid growth in online learning is due to increased student demand, much of this growth is also being driven by the recession. States are looking for ways to reduce education costs, and virtual learning seems to offer the solution.

But virtual education needs to be careful about how much it offers for a low price. Early on in the charter school movement, advocates made some bad bargains, including offering a better education at a lower price than traditional public schools, and now many charter school advocates are battling for funding equity. Virtual providers risk making the same bad bargain as states look for the lowest bidder—without good guidelines for quality, it may be hard for states to distinguish a high-quality, more expensive provider from a low-quality, low-price one.

For more lessons for virtual learning from the charter school sector, check out Lessons for Online Learning, which appears in the Spring 2011 issue of Ed Next and is now available online.

-Erin Dillon

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