Regulating Cyber Charter Schools

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Experts examine the need for regulation of cyber charter schools.

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Are cyber charter schools a good option for families who want an alternative learning model, or do they endanger educational progress and equity and waste taxpayer dollars?

Enrollment increased dramatically at online charter schools, often called “cyber charters,” over the last school year as parents searched for safe education options for their children during the COVID-19 pandemic. For example, in Oklahoma, Epic Charter Schools’ enrollment rose to almost 60,000 students by the fall of 2020, making it larger than any school district in the state. And in Virginia, enrollment in a cyber charter school organization, K12 Inc., grew by 40 percent from 2019 to 2020.

Some parents champion cyber charters because they “offer a more flexible, at-your-own-pace education” for students who do not enjoy the traditional classroom or face attendance barriers, such as familial responsibilities, jobs, or disabilities.

Scholars are concerned, however, about the efficacy and equity of cyber charter schools under current regulations. In one study, scholars found that students enrolled in cyber charter schools scored lower than their peers enrolled in traditional public schools by 16 and 11 percentile points in math and English language arts respectively.

State-level education codes contain cyber charter school regulations, which vary by state. These regulations include location requirements, caps on enrollment and growth, and performance accountability measures. Some state legislatures have remained silent on cyber charters but permit them, and other states ban cyber charters completely.

At the federal level, regulators target special education through accountability measures. The U.S. Department of Education issued a letter to emphasize the legal obligation of cyber charter schools to provide a free, appropriate education to students with disabilities pursuant to the Individuals with Disabilities in Education Act (IDEA). Cyber charter schools, which act as local education agencies, must adopt the rules and policies of state education agencies to meet IDEA requirements.

In this week’s Saturday Seminar, experts discuss possible regulation of cyber charter schools to better serve students.

  • Alex Molnar of the University of Colorado Boulder and several coauthors published a brief for the National Education Policy Center surveying the current state of cyber charter schools. They urge policymakers to engage the public in creating rules for cyber charters that include financial and educational oversight to protect taxpayers and students. During the 2019-2020 school year, only 35.2 percent of cyber charter schools received acceptable performance ratings, while 50.7 percent of district-operated virtual schools received acceptable ratings. Because virtual school performance data show that cyber charters continue to underperform, Molnar and his coauthors advocate enforcement and sanctions for inadequate student outcomes and other regulatory approaches, such as using performance data to make funding decisions.
  • According to a study by DeLaina Tonks of Mountain Heights Academy, and Royce Kimmons and Stacie L. Mason of Brigham Young University, 73 percent of students with disabilities allegedly reported that they chose to attend their virtual charter school because of negative experiences in their previous schools. Many students shared that they were bullied or disliked their teachers at their old school. Other students found the virtual environment more accessible for their emotional needs or physical disabilities such as cerebral palsy. Tonks, Kimmons, and Mason note that, regardless of the reasons for choosing cyber charters, data show that students underperform and make slower progress compared to students in nonvirtual schools. They emphasize the need for more research in special education in virtual charter schools to inform future policy.
  • In a policy brief for the Education Commission of the States, policy researcher Ben Erwin identifies state legislation that addressed virtual schooling from the 2017-2019 legislative terms. Erwin explains that legislation on virtual schooling, including the 45 bills that state legislatures passed across 25 states, aims to improve three main areas: attendance and engagement, authorizing and governance, and funding. He discusses how states have changed requirements on authorization and oversight of virtual school by bolstering accountability mechanisms.
  • The COVID-19 pandemic presents an opportunity to build out virtual instruction in brick and mortar schools by partnering with existing cyber charters, Jonathan Butcher of The Heritage Foundation explains in a policy brief for the Mercatus Center at George Mason University. Butcher refers to the Education Department pandemic guidance as proof of progress in virtual learning because it withdraws regulatory obstacles for schools that offer online courses. He warns parents and policymakers that they should hold schools accountable for making policy changes to accommodate students’ learning needs online. Butcher recommends, however, that schools persevere in providing academic services to students without fear of regulatory retaliation from federal or state officials.
  • Cyber charter schools can hurt the budgets of Pennsylvania’s public school districts because charter schools gain the tuition associated with the students that enroll, Susan L. DeJarnatt of the Temple University Beasley School of Law explains in an article in The Pennsylvania Bar Association Quarterly. DeJarnatt expounds that cyber charters receive more funding than necessary because they receive the identical amount of funding per pupil as the brick and mortar charter schools regardless of changing operating costs. She advocates regulations requiring objective assessments of the real costs of providing cyber education and pegging tuition to those costs.
  • As technological advancements impact how schools deliver education, regulators must rethink the basic structure of education law, Aaron Saiger of Fordham University School of Law argues in a chapter in the Oxford Handbook of U.S. Education Law. Saiger explains that U.S. education law assumes that schools occur in person, but virtuality will allow students to access education from multiple providers at any time and at lower costs. He recommends that experts design regulations with equity, fairness, and rights for students who attend virtual schools.

The Saturday Seminar is a weekly feature that aims to put into written form the kind of content that would be conveyed in a live seminar involving regulatory experts. Each week, The Regulatory Review publishes a brief overview of a selected regulatory topic and then distills recent research and scholarly writing on that topic.