Racial and Economic Diversity Trends in Virtual Charter Schools: An Analysis of National Enrollment Data, 2015-16

Published on August 28, 2018

Modified on December 11, 2020

Written By: 

Bryan MannUniversity of Alabama


This study analyzes national and state enrollment data to examine racial and economic diversity in virtual charter schools (VCS). Previous research shows that VCSs enroll higher percentages of white students and lower percentages of economically disadvantaged students compared to national averages. The study presented here combines descriptive data with the Exposure Index strategy used in school segregation and diversity research. The purpose is to analyze the consistency of previous findings across and within states. The findings here reiterate that, in general, more white students attend VCSs, and the virtual charter sector has proportionally more economically advantaged students compared to other types of schools. However, despite enrollment distributions typically showing that VCSs are not diverse, patterns vary across states.

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What we already know about this topic
  • Virtual charter school enrollment numbers differ across the country, ranging from some states with no virtual charter students to others with more than 30,000.
  • When compared to national averages, virtual schools have more white students and fewer students reporting as free and reduced lunch eligible.
  • Virtual charter schools have achieved lower performance ratings on a number of metrics, including graduation rates, annual yearly progress scores, and student learning growth indicators.
What this report adds
  • This report examines 2015-16 national enrollment data to understand the differences in total virtual charter school enrollments and school demographics in each state.
  • Instead of comparing enrollments to national averages, this report compares enrollments to the states with virtual charter schools only and also compares enrollments within each state to statewide populations of traditional public and charter school students.
Implications for practice or policy
  • On average, virtual charter schools tend to be majority white and to have fewer Title 1 schools. The majority of states have majority white virtual school populations who experience less diversity in virtual charter schools than they do in other schools in the state.
  • In some states, students experience more diverse environments than the other schools in their state.
  • Since virtual charter schools have fewer students of color in the general, there tend to be fewer racially isolated minority schools than often seen in the traditional public and charter schools.
  • The findings of this report show that virtual charter school enrollments vary considerably across states, so lawmakers and practitioners need to examine their own state contexts when determining strategies to maintain diverse virtual charter school populations. However, these strategies must be considered in tandem with achievement outcomes to ensure diverse enrollments are also equitable.
Additional Publications

Virtual Schools in the U.S.: Case Studies of Policy, Performance, and Research Evidence
Virtual Schools in the U.S. 2017
CREDO’s Online Charter School Study
Choice, Cyber Charter Schools, and the Educational Marketplace for Rural School Districts

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