One fast-growing sector of the charter school movement is online "virtual" schools. Many students enroll in these schools to complete their entire program of study online. Other traditional students may take just one or two classes to augment their usual school curriculum.
Arkansas' main on-line charter school is the Arkansas Virtual Academy. Last spring the state's Charter Authorizing Panel approved the Arkansas Virtual Academy to add 1,000 students, making it eligible to enroll 3,000 students in the 2017-18 school year.
On-line learning... That should be a good thing... We all like our digital devices, right? Except....
According to the Arkansas Times, the Arkansas Virtual Academy "has been unable for months to provide a consistent and accurate enrollment count" and scores below state averages on achievement tests at nearly every grade level.
In fact, StartClass, an education research group that evaluates schools across the country, rated the Arkansas Virtual Academy at a 4 on a scale of 10, where the average score for U.S. schools is 6. StartClass notes that the AVA's student-teacher ratio is 34:1 compared to traditional Arkansas schools' 14:1. Student performance is markedly lower in the Arkansas Virtual Academy, with students scoring a 17% pass rate in math compared to 27% for students in more traditional settings. The English Language Arts score was somewhat more equal with the AVA students scoring 30% passing compared to 32% from students in the rest of the state.
Yet the Arkansas Virtual Academy does just fine financially. It gets more than $6,000 in state dollars per student (the same amount as traditional public schools), meaning it will get $6 million more per year with its higher enrollment cap. This in spite of the fact that, as the Arkansas Times points out, "it has no gyms, band rooms, cafeterias, bus systems, or faculty commensurate with those of brick-and-mortar school districts."
The Arkansas Virtual Academy gets much of its academic programming and infrastructure from an out-of-state private, for-profit corporation. According to financial reports, the Arkansas Virtual Academy paid $7.8 million of its $10.7 million in annual state revenue to its "third-party management agent," K12, of Herndon, VA.
Almost 90% of K12's income comes from state and federal tax dollars, and the company has been criticized by watchdog groups and its own stockholders for "lamentable academic performance" while paying its executives multi-millions of dollars. Its top five executives received more than $12 million in compensation in 2015. Another criticism of K12 is that it spends millions of taxpayer dollars lobbying state and federal governments for (you guessed it) more access to students and more funding. K12 no longer discloses its advertising budget, but in 2012 it spent $20 million on ads to attract students, funding, perks, and favors.
Despite being the darling of school choice advocates, on-line charter schools like Arkansas Virtual Academy get poor ratings from education researchers who study such things. A report from Stanford University's Center for Research of Education Outcomes found that online charters do a very poor job of educating children. In general, students in online charters lose 42 days of reading instruction a year and 180 days of math instruction. (There are only 180 days of instruction in most public school years.)
According to Education Week, a study of Colorado's online charter school revealed that just 24% of students use the learning software each day. A program called "FAST and Furious" allows students to earn a year's worth of credit for a week of work. The school's leader helped direct millions of taxpayer dollars to his own for-profit management company. Unfortunately, this type of behavior is not atypical of online charter schools.
If it were a traditional public school, the Arkansas Virtual Academy would be under strict scrutiny--and probably sanctions--by the Arkansas Department of Education for poor test scores and slip-shod financial management. As a charter school, however, it is largely exempt from rules that govern traditional schools and allowed to go its own way, even rewarded with state permission to increase its enrollment.