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Virtual Schools in the U.S.: Case Studies of Policy, Performance, and Research Evidence
Published on June 27, 2017

Modified on June 27, 2017


Virtual Schools in the U.S.: Case Studies of Policy, Performance, and Research EvidenceThe National Education Policy Center recently released its annual Virtual Schools in the U.S.: Politics, Performance, Policy, and Research Evidence report, providing a unique look at virtual schools across the country. To supplement the national perspective provided in that report, the lead authors also created five in-depth case studies featuring the states of Ohio, Wisconsin, Idaho, Washington, and Michigan. In this new report, entitled Virtual Schools in the U.S.: Case Studies of Policy, Performance, and Research Evidence, the authors describe the enrollment, student characteristics, and performance of virtual and blended schools in each state, discuss the research related to virtual and blended school characteristics and outcomes, and examine recent legislative activities pertaining to virtual and blended schools. This new research effort adds to our current understanding of virtual schools by highlighting areas that are consistent with findings identified in the national report as well as noting instances where national trends may inaccurately describe state-level activity.

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Written By:
  • Michael K. Barbour, Touro University, California
  • Gary Miron, Western Michigan University
  • Luis Huerta, Teachers College, Columbia University
What we already know about this topic:
  • Previous publications have identified growing enrollments in virtual schools, particularly those operated by private educational management organizations (EMOs).
  • Analysis of available demographic data has noted fewer minority and low-income students were enrolled in virtual schools compared to national averages.
  • Virtual schools tend to have student-to-teacher ratios in excess of those in traditional schools. Graduation rates and school report card grades of virtual schools tend to be below their traditional school counterparts.
What this report adds:
  • Some of the national trends held true at the state level. For example, in Wisconsin, virtual schools enrolled higher percentages of White students than the statewide average and the national average.
  • Even when a national trend held true, sometimes the size of the gap changed considerably. For instance, as noted above for Wisconsin, the percentage of White students enrolled in virtual schools was almost 30 percentage points higher than the national average; however, it was less than 10% higher than the state average.
  • There was also clear state variation from national statistics and trends. In Ohio for example, the percentage of White students attending virtual schools was much higher than the national average, but essentially no different from the state average. In Michigan, virtual schools enrolled higher percentages of students who were eligible for free and reduced lunch compared to all Michigan schools as well as all public schools in the country.
  • Student-to-teacher ratios were quite variant from one state to the next. In Michigan, the mean student-to-teacher ratio was significantly impacted by an extreme value, suggesting that the median, in some cases, may be a more representative measure.
  • The volume of research and policy activities varied in each state.
Implications for practice and/or policy:
  • The five case studies established important baseline measures for each state that were often more precise and accurate than substituting with national statistics. In some cases, national trends continued to be observed; in others, variation was found. This research suggests that both kinds of research – national scans as well as state case studies – be conducted to understand important variations.
  • The demonstration of the variation between states suggests lessons can be learned from future studies to understand what is working in some states that may not be working as well in others. This understanding will aid in raising performance across the nation.


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