Study: Online school scores lag behind traditional public schools

Jan 6, 2012

A new report finds students who attend online schools in Michigan are not performing as well on standardized tests as those in traditional public schools. 

The National Education Policy Center found about 27 percent of online schools met federal achievement standards in the last school year. That compares to about 51 percent at brick-and-mortar schools.

The study says the largest growing subgroup of public charter schools is virtual -- or online -- schools.

Western Michigan University education professor Gary Miron co-authored the study.

He says there are also questions about the accountability of for-profit charter schools that offer online education.

"One of the issues that has been coming up is that many of these virtual schools enroll students, then these students don't actively participate," Miron says. "However, the school continues to receive money."

Michigan’s average per-pupil spending was about $7,300 last school year.

Miron says there's a big difference between virtual schools and virtual programs. Some companies provide both. Some provide individual curriculum packages, some deliver individual courses.

"Some companies can deliver individual courses to small and remote schools, where it's harder to get highly qualified teachers to teach courses like advanced placement chemistry or Latin," Miron explains. "But pushing full online education will damage traditional public schools."

He says many online students are home-schooled with parental supervision.

"They're very dependent on the role of the parents being instructors, and having a teacher at the virtual company who provides support and guidance," Miron says. "But when we look at the numbers, there are as many as 60 to 120 students per teacher employed by the virtual company."

Miron says charter schools were supposed to be small, locally run schools, but that's not turned out to be the case.

"We've seen some of these virtual schools open up and enroll as many as 4,000 or 5,000 students in the first year, and then ramp up to as many as 8,000 or more  students, " Miron says. "Here in Michigan, we have schools that are not run from schools that are five miles away at the district office. Now they're being operated from Massachusetts, California and Florida in these large networks."

He says 80 percent of Michigan’s approximately 250 charter schools are run by for-profit companies, compared to 35 percent in the rest of the country.

"We're seeing that even though there are cuts in public education across the country, we're seeing the proportion of funding being devoted to these private companies growing," Miron says. "That's quite striking at a time when education budgets are being cut."

Governor Snyder signed a law in December that will eventually eliminate the cap on the number of charter schools in the state.