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  • Alyse DiNapoli

States are Still Figuring out Ways to Keep Virtual Schools Accountable, According to Annual Report

Updated: Oct 23, 2019

The Nation Education Policy Center (NEPC) published their annual report on virtual education last week, reinforcing the need for strong state accountability and oversight when it comes to cyber school performance. The report, which has been published every year since 2013, evaluates the status of K-12 online learning and offers recommendations on how statewide policymakers can enforce higher standards.

While there were some improvements from the year prior, data for the 2017-18 school year reveals that approximately 49% of full time virtual schools have acceptable student performance ratings. In addition, the report notes that graduation rate among students enrolled in these schools is about 50%, compared to the national average of 84%.

While the findings are not drastically different from previous years, Michael Barbour, co-author of the report and Associate Professor at Touro University, states that the need for more oversight is as strong as ever, as scandals and subsequent closures continue to arise all over the country.

“Year after year, we continue to find that these programs are growing and they're still not performing and there is still little to no accountability or oversight for them...It’s really striking that you’d think, after a while, we’d start to see some changes come from these findings, but for some reason, it just hasn’t,” said Barbour.

One of the most recent examples comes from Ohio, where the Electronic Classroom of Tomorrow (ECOT) virtual school was found to have over-reported their enrollment numbers, and because these schools receive funding per pupil, they were ordered to repay the roughly $80 million that they received from the government. Unable to do so, the school closed up shop last year. Two of Indiana’s virtual schools also received millions of dollars in funding for students who didn’t end up earning any credits.

But despite the bad apples making headlines, John Watson, founder of Evergreen Education Group, says that the NEPC’s recommendation to enforce sanctions on low-performing schools is not necessarily the solution. While there is certainly evidence suggesting that students enrolled in full-time virtual schools have lower graduation rates and student performance, there are many types of digital learning programs that should be evaluated separately. Even in the NEPC report, data can be analyzed by different virtual school structures, like charters, district-run schools, full-time online programs and blended learning (programs that combine a mixture of face-to-face and online instruction). For example, about 29% of virtual schools run by for-profit organizations have acceptable school performance ratings, while the percentage is roughly 57% for online schools run by school districts.

In addition, Watson says that much of the research does not take into account the fact that students may opt for these programs because of trying life circumstances that have set them back academically well before they even start their online courses. A 2018 study by the Oklahoma Virtual Charter School Board found that 41% of surveyed participants cited bullying and classmate threats as reasons for switching to an online school. The resulting mental health issues, such as depression or anxiety, may contribute to lower academic performance, meaning their online school shoulders the burden for getting them caught up.

Despite this, the NEPC report still suggests halting the growth of virtual schools until more research is available. It’s hard to be optimistic that that will happen though. Even as new findings arises, legislators are not just consulting academic research to craft new policy.

“Even in areas where we do have a significant number of researchers that are addressing specific questions that policymakers and legislators have asked them to look into, the folks that are making the legislation and policies still ignore what the research says in favor of things that the lobbyists for these companies are giving them,” says Barbour.

Michigan Virtual Learning Research Institute, for example, receives state funding to track the effectiveness of its virtual programs. Since the 2010-11 school year, the student pass rate has steadily declined from 66% to 55% in the 2017-18 school year. Yet, the number of virtual schools in the state has almost doubled. From roughly 2015 to 2016, the DeVos family alone- well-known school choice advocates- made state-level political contributions that were five times greater than the Michigan Education Association. Their super PAC Great Lakes Education Project (GLEP) has been instrumental in advocating for charter school policy. (79% of online students are enrolled in a virtual charter school).

But while lobbying expenditures certainly influence legislative outcomes, one of the biggest-and quickest- drivers of new policies actually seem to be in response to public investigations and lawsuits. The findings in Ohio and Indiana led the states to pass bills that adjust funding formulas and enhance accountability measures for online schools. A scandal involving the inflation of enrollment numbers by California Virtual Academies (managed by K12 Inc, the nation’s largest for-profit virtual school provider ) was the impetus behind a 2017 bill in California banning for profit charters to operate in the state. According to Watson, though, a compromise between school choice and excessive regulation (or a complete ban) would be for legislators to require that cyber schools publish their student performance metrics and make them readily available for educators and parents.

“The middle ground option-which is more or less what is happening-is for states to create requirements for schools to measure their impact in some way and to publicize the metrics, based on the idea that parents will then have better information on which to base their decisions, but take few, if any, punitive actions against schools that don't perform well,” he stated.

While the likelihood that parents could seamlessly access the data (and subsequently act on it) is up for debate, it may still offer a viable step towards more transparency. So while most states aren’t taking as aggressive an approach as the NEPC report suggests, it’s clear that a demand for accountability isn’t going away anytime soon.


“Virtual Schools in the US 2019”. National Education Policy Center. University of Colorado, Boulder. May 2019.

Barbour, Michael. Co-author of “Virtual Schools in the US 2019”, Associate Professor of Instructional Design at Touro University.

“Indiana Paid for Thousands of Students Who Never Earned Credits at Virtual Charter Schools.” Chalkbeat. Cavazos, Shaina. April 10, 2019.

Watson, John. Founder, Evergreen Education Group.

“Reasons for Enrolling, Benefits and Challenges of Oklahoma’s Virtual Charter Schools.” Oklahoma Statewide Virtual Charter School Board. December 19, 2017.

“Michigan’s K-12 Virtual Learning Effectiveness Report, 2017-18.” Michigan Virtual Learning Research Institute. Friedhoff, Joseph R. March 27, 2019.

“Devos Family Made $14 million in Political Contributions in the Last 2 Years Alone.” Michigan Campaign Finance Network. Mauger, Craig. 2016.

“Attorney General Kamala D. Harris Announces $168.5 million Settlement with K12 Inc., a For-Profit Online Charter Operator.” Press Release, Office of Attorney General. July 8, 2016.