September 2013 • No.


The Great Equalizer: How Online Learning Promises Every Student an Excellent Education
by Casey Given


ver the last decade, online learning has brought school choice to new frontiers. Thanks to the Internet, a quality education is a click away for thousands of students who were previously unsatisfied with their brick-and-mortar public school. Unfortunately, this progress has met with considerable challenges. Several states stubbornly refuse to expand educational freedom online. In fact, many conservative educational reformers are even scaling back their state’s existing online programs, often in the name of preserving “local control” for district school boards. This policy brief traces online learning’s past developments, present political challenges, and future prospects. It urges innovation in student performance evaluations and state authorization to combat the current deceleration of online learning options. After all, no control is more local than parents choosing the best educational opportunities for their child.

low-income families or failing public schools with access to a highquality education. Be it public school choice through charter schools and open enrollment or private school choice through vouchers and tax credits, educational freedom has improved so many youngsters’ lives. The success of school choice is backed by hard data, too. More than two-thirds of studies after 2001 have concluded that charter school students make similar or significantly better test score gains than their district school companions.1 The results have been so positive that one widely-cited Stanford University study that initially criticized charter schools for their lack of academic progress had to revise its thesis after witnessing significant gains.2 Despite the encouraging acceleration of choice, an excellent education unfortunately remains out of reach for too many American schoolchildren. Many students have special circumstances that hinder access to their state’s school choice options. For example, charter schools tend to be concentrated in urban areas, leaving children in rural and suburban towns with little option but to attend their local public school regardless of its academic quality. Even in areas with a decent amount of educational options, public and private school choice programs are still subject to

School choice has empowered millions of students from low-income families or failing public schools with access to a high-quality education.

Tearing Down the Walls of the Traditional Classroom
With stagnating test scores and graduation rates, American parents have had a lot of cause to be pessimistic about public schooling over the past half-century. Fortunately, a glimmer of hope has started to shine over the past two decades for American schoolchildren. School choice has empowered millions of students from

enrollment caps, leaving many students out of luck. As a result, thousands of students’ academic fate is determined by lottery, as tragically documented in movies like Waiting for Superman. Fortunately, the Internet has shown great potential to make Horace Mann’s famous description of education as “the great equalizer” a reality.3 While technology has played an important role in education since the advent of television, access to such learning aids were limited to physical classrooms up until the 1990s. It wasn’t until the turn of the century that growing access to the Internet finally made distance learning a reality. Today, online learning transcends school choice’s physical boundaries and enrollment constraints by bringing access to educational freedom at the click of a mouse. The Status of Online School Choice in the States While every state offers some sort of online learning, the size and scope of these programs vary widely between states and even school districts. Broadly speaking, though, online learning today can be clumped into two basic categories. First, full-time virtual schools completely supplement a student’s education in a brick-and-mortar public school with one in a virtual classroom. Typically, these online academies are operated and regulated as charter schools in a state, with a portion of a student’s per pupil funding following him or her to the new school. 30 states offer statewide full-time virtual schools as of August 2013. Second, blended learning programs complement a student’s education at a brick-and-mortar public school with online classes at a virtual school. Most often, these programs are targeted at high school students to expand their learning in subject
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Status of Online Learning by State
STATE Statewide full-time virtual school Statewide blending learning program Allows for district online learning
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Today, online learning transcends school choice’s physical boundaries and enrollment constraints by bringing access to educational freedom at the click of a mouse.

Alabama Alaska Arizona Arkansas California Colorado Connecticut Delaware Florida Georgia Hawaii Idaho Illinois Indiana Iowa Kansas Kentucky Louisiana Maine Maryland Massachusetts Michigan Minnesota Mississippi Missouri Montana Nebraska Nevada New Hampshire New Jersey New Mexico New York North Carolina North Dakota Ohio Oklahoma Oregon Pennsylvania Rhode Island South Carolina South Dakota Tennessee Texas Utah Vermont Virginia Washington West Virginia Wisconsin Wyoming

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a a a a a a a  a a a a a  a  a a  a a a  a a a     a  a  a  a   a a a a a a a a a a 

areas that their school may not offer such as foreign languages and Advanced Placement courses. 35 states offer statewide blended learning programs as of August 2013. These two types of online schools can be authorized either on the state or local level. Indeed, a variety of different administrative combinations can be seen across the country. To untangle this web of virtual school choice, the nearby chart displays what type of online learning is available in each state and what level of government such programs are administered.

General Assembly.5 While cuts to public education are absolutely necessary considering the state’s bleak fiscal situation, these cuts should be applied across all public schools equally and not directly targeted at online learning – especially since virtual schools in Pennsylvania only receive 81% of a student’s per pupil funding as it is.6 • l Tennessee: Despite Republican trifecta House, Senate, and Governor, Tennessee passed legislation restricting enrollment in virtual schools this past legislative session. The new law limits registration in every virtual school in the state to 1,500, with modest increases if performance requirements are met.7 • l Virginia: Despite its responsibility to educate 1.3 million students, Virginia’s charter laws are so weak that there are only four of the schools in the state.8 Sadly, one of the four closed this year, denying choice to 425 students in Old Dominion. Carroll County’s school board shut down the state’s only online academy.9 All four states cited student performance concerns as justification for halting or hindering expansion of virtual school choice. While it’s absolutely critical for virtual schools to be held accountable for providing students a quality education, it’s also important to keep in mind the circumstances that cause students to pursue online learning in the first place. The overwhelming majority of students that transfer from a district school to a virtual school have parents who are dissatisfied with the education their child was receiving at their local brick-andmortar public school. As a result of the academic damage done to these students by such failing institutions, they are often years behind grade level and perform poorly on evaluation metrics like Adequate l 3

The Virtual School Slowdown
Although states have generally embraced online learning, the past few years have seen a sea change in attitudes towards virtual school choice. Recently, many states have stalled or even rolled back implementation of online learning, usually citing poor performance on standardized tests as justification for scrutiny. This section catalogs the recent disappointments we’ve seen in the past year, many of which were led by conservative policymakers. • l New Jersey: Just months before the state’s first two full-time virtual schools were scheduled to open, Republican Education Commissioner Christopher Cerf withdrew their state approval, citing insufficient evidence that online learning improves student performance.4 Of course, the evidence will continue to be insufficient in the Garden State unless Mr. Cerf allows online school choice to proceed. Until then, 1,000 students will continue to be denied attendance at the school of their choice. • l Pennsylvania: Despite constituting only one percent of the state’s education budget, Pennsylvania’s virtual schools face severe threat of funding cuts from the state’s Republican-controlled

Yearly Progress (AYP). Consequently, virtual schools are often wrongfully depicted as fail factories that do not improve students’ education. Indeed, this problem is not exclusive to virtual schools, either. Charter schools and even brick-and-mortar public schools are often criticized for poor AYP performance. Part of the problem stems from the fact that AYP is an unrealistic measurement of learning.10 “Adequate Yearly Progress” as defined by No Child Left Behind is a benchmark percentage of students in a school that are expected to meet proficiency standards on a state standardized test in a given year. No Child Left Behind, as originally passed, envisions 100% of students in public schools receiving federal funds to be proficient in reading and mathematics by 2014. This impossible goal means that the bar by which virtual schools are measured – and all public schools for that matter – is raised every year. Instead of one-size-fits-all evaluations like AYP, states could more effectively evaluate virtual schools’ performance by focusing on progress rather than benchmarks. That is to say, states should evaluate whether a student’s knowledge has improved rather than if their knowledge is sufficient to pass a state standardized test. One such form of evaluation is the value-added model, where a student’s test scores are compared at the beginning and end of a school year to determine if they’ve made academic progress.11 Such progress-based evaluations would shine a light on virtual schools’ effectiveness without penalizing them for accepting students who are behind grade level.

recent development in Georgia may be a good model for how education reformers can promote online school choice in the future. Over the past few years, Georgia has trailblazed bold school choice reforms. Thanks to the efforts of their General Assembly, Peach State children have access to over 200 charter schools, including numerous virtual academies.12 A large part of the credit for Georgia’s extensive online school choice belongs to the Georgia Charter Schools Commission, a state board with authority to establish charter schools in local districts that are hostile to school choice. The Commission established 16 charter schools as of 2011, including two virtual academies. Unfortunately, in May of that year, the Georgia Supreme Court declared the Commission unconstitutional, claiming that “[n]o other constitutional provision authorizes any other governmental entity to compete with or duplicate the efforts of local boards of education in establishing and maintaining general K-12 schools.”13 Fortunately, Georgians understand the importance of school choice to a quality education. In November 2012, Georgia voters restored the Commission’s authority by passing a constitutional amendment via ballot.14 Other states can learn from Georgia’s example. Despite all the obstacles, school choice remains popular among parents and taxpayers across the country. So when education reformers find local education agencies hinder school choice being hindered in their state, they can easily turn to legislation, ballot initiatives, or constitutional amendments to secure school choice on the state level. A charter school authorizing board like Georgia’s can ensure all students have access to a full-time virtual school in their state. While district officials may object that such state-authorized schools compete with their

Georgia’s Model for Promoting Online School Choice
Although the last year has seen a number of disappointments for virtual schools, one
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authority, such commission schools can be funded and administration on the state level like in Georgia so that none of the burden falls upon local education agencies. Instead of impeding on local control, state-created virtual schools would only add more educational choice for parents to select the best school for their child.

being met with legal challenges. Nevertheless, the obstacles to online school choice require much work ahead. Education reformers should urge their elected officials to stand for virtual school choice. Online learning programs should be expanded into full-time virtual schools, preferably on the state level. Enrollment caps should be lifted to ensure that every student has an opportunity to succeed. Legal and political challenges against educational freedom should be thwarted. Finally, and perhaps most importantly, performance evaluations should be reformed in a way that is both fair to the unique challenges virtual school students face and equally applied to all types of public schools – district, charter, and virtual. It is not until all four hurdles are cleared that education will truly be “the great equalizer” – delivering every student an excellent education regardless of socioeconomic status.

Accelerating into the Future of Virtual School Choice
While cyber school choice has accelerated at an impressive rate over the past decade, it has hit a speed bump in the past year. However, this year’s slowdown is a small obstacle compared to the unprecedented progress school choice has made recently, with online learning existing in all 50 states at some state or local level. In fact, this speed bump is arguably the result of how far educational freedom has come, with groundbreaking progress like Georgia’s

Instead of impeding on local control, state-created virtual schools would only add more educational choice for parents to select the best school for their child.

1 “Charter School Achievement: What We Know,” Na¬tional Alliance for Charter Schools (April 2009), data/files/Publication_docs/Summary_of_Achievement_Studies_Fifth_Edition_2009_Final_20110402T222331.pdf. 2 “National Charter School Study 2013,” Center for Research on Education Outcomes, Stanford University (2013), 3 “Education then, beyond all other devices of human origin, is the great equalizer of the conditions of men, the balance-wheel of the social machinery.” –Horace Mann 4

Jessica Calefati, “Decision to halt state’s first online charter schools draws criticism from parents, praise from pols,”, (June 30, 2013), parents_and_praise_from_la.html.

5 “Auditor Jack Wagner Says Fixing PA’s Charter School Formula Could Save $365 Million a Year in Taxpayer Money,” Pennsylvania Department of the Auditor General (June 20, 2012), %99scharterschoolformula.html. 6 Priya Abraham and Elizabeth Steele, “Cyber School Funding in Pennsylvania,” Commonwealth Foundation (May 30, 2012), 7 “Governor Signs Virtual Schools Legislation,” (May 16, 2013), 8 James P. Massie III, “Massie: Education plan focuses on charter schools,” Richmond Times-Dispatch (January 27, 2013), http://www. article_bc01644a-5fb0-5384-a97d-1cc4a2e56004.html. 9 Michael Allison Chandler, “Virginia’s first statewide virtual school likely to close,” The Washington Post (May 1, 2013), 10 11

“Adequate Yearly Progress,” Education Week (August 3, 2004),

Marcus A. Winters, “Transforming Tenure: Using Value-Added Modeling to Identify Ineffective Teachers,” Manhattan Institute for Policy Research (September 2012),
12 “Chartering in Georgia: The Charter School Division Annual Report for 2011-2012,” Charter School Division (2012), http://www. 2011-2012.pdf. 13 Maureen Downey, “Breaking news: Georgia Supreme Court strikes down Charter Schools Commission in 4-3 vote,” Atlanta JournalCourier (May 16, 2011), 14 “Georgia Charter Schools, Amendment 1 (2012)” Ballotpedia (2013),,_Amendment_1_%282012%29 l 5

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