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Michigan's virtual charters are gaining in numbers, lagging in achievement

Jul 3, 2017

The number of Michigan kids who attend virtual schools has exploded in the past eight years. But a new study suggests those students aren’t keeping pace with their peers.

In the 2009-2010 school year, there were just two virtual schools in Michigan that enrolled fewer than 1,000 students. Today, there are 66 online schools with enrollment just shy of 14,000 kids.

Gary Miron, a Western Michigan University education professor, says he’s generally optimistic about online learning.

“We know it works at the university level, and we believe it can work at the kindergarten to 12th grade levels,” Miron said. “Unfortunately, the model that’s being used right now does not work. It didn’t work last year, it didn’t work the year before that, it’s not working now, next year it’s still not going to be working.” 

The majority of the online schools are run by school districts. But the biggest share of students, around 65%, are enrolled in for-profit schools. The report says that those schools enroll a much larger number of students from across the state and have higher teacher-to-student ratios than those run by districts.

Miron says the rapid growth of Michigan’s virtual school hasn’t left enough time to evaluate what’s working and what’s not when it comes to policy and oversight. He says online schools, especially those run by for-profit companies, are falling behind their brick and mortar counterparts.

“They’re falling short on all the outcomes,” Miron said. “Whether its graduation rates, which are just terrible. Whether we’re looking at the performance on standardized tests, again just dismal and no promise across the board.”

Around half of virtual schools were considered as having “acceptable” performance in state rankings. The report says graduation rates for the 45 virtual schools with available data rank far below the state average, with just 35% of students making it through high school in four years.

The report recommends that lawmakers pump the brakes on virtual school expansion until it’s clear why the schools are performing poorly, and until it's clear how to fix them. The authors also recommend that states with virtual learning re-evaluate the funding formulas for online schools. Michigan Gov. Rick Snyder has proposed reducing the funding for cyber schools because they don't have to spend the money on transportation or building maintenance that brick and mortar schools do.