Online K–12 education at a virtual crossroads

Getty Images/Lora-Sutyagina

Andrew Lewis

Across our nation, hundreds of thousands of children are attending a public charter school that provides full time virtual learning for their students.

For many students, this virtual model works in providing an appropriate and meaningful option in public K–12 education. Some children, for example, suffer from conditions that prevent effective and efficient learning, whether physical or social, making this setting a valuable one. There are countless reasons that make a virtual setting a good fit for a student.

But far too many children across the nation are not succeeding in their virtual charter schools, and there are many reasons why. They include the belief that a full-time online setting is just not how any child should be educated, as well as observations that we have not done enough to support virtual education to make it meaningful. Yet the most profound reason virtual schools are failing is that online education is a square-peg-in-a-round-hole scenario; they’re simply inappropriate as public charter schools.

Federal law demands that charter schools must take all students. Charter schools cannot turn away a student so long as there is an opening for the child. If there are more applicants than there are spaces, there is a lottery to determine who attends the charter.

But as we look across the nation, few virtual charter schools with a statewide attendance zone have limitations on the number of students they serve, nor on whom they serve. This come-one-come-all model is highly inappropriate in too many cases. The poor academic outcomes of these schools only underscores this point and should give pause to any state policymaker determining taxpayer’s return on investment.

Does this mean we should scrap virtual learning altogether? Most certainly not. Do we need to rethink how to approach virtual learning? Most certainly yes.

Traditional public schools that allow for admission criteria, such as magnet schools, may hold the solution.

If our virtual charter schools were allowed to become statewide magnet schools with admission requirements, we might be able to utilize this unique educational environment for the students who would truly thrive in this setting. At the same time, we would prevent those students who would likely flounder in a virtual setting from setting themselves back academically.

Clear and defined admission criterion, something charter schools are unable to adopt, is critical if we are to ensure this offering is assisting students and not stunting them. Criteria such as being computer-literate, interested in online learning, and the ability to work independently are bare minimums.

Working with a student’s parents and prior teachers to determine if the child is meeting the above criteria is also essential. As are requiring an orientation course for prospective students and their parents and clearly articulating the prerequisites in the home needed for a student to thrive.

The current model for virtual charter schools is not working. We continue to try to hammer the square peg into the round hole, saying "we can make it fit." Instead, we need to start saying "square pegs don't belong in round holes, so let's find a better solution."

If we don't, we are likely to waste an innovative approach to public education, as virtual charter schools are held accountable for their academic results. Let's take the necessary steps to make online learning available to those who are able to be successful in that setting.

Andrew Lewis, an education consultant and political strategist, is the former executive vice president of the Georgia Charter Schools Association.

The views expressed herein represent the opinions of the author and not necessarily the Thomas B. Fordham Institute.