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Walton Foundation sounds alarm on virtual charters. 'Stark evidence most...have negative impact.'

In November, we discussed the findings of the National Study of Online Charter Schools, a series of three reviews commissioned  by the largest private funder of charter schools, the Walton Family Foundation.

The Center for Research on Education Outcomes or CREDO at Stanford University, the Center on Reinventing Public Education at the University of Washington and Mathematica Policy Research looked at students in 158 virtual schools in 17 states including Georgia. The students took all their classes online through schools typically run by private providers rather than school districts.

In math, students were 180 days – an entire school year – behind peers in traditional public schools. In reading, they were 72 days behind.

As a result of the studies it underwrote, the Walton Family Foundation is now adding its influential voice to those calling for an overhaul of online schools. In an essay in Education Week, two foundation leaders say that if virtual charters were grouped together and ranked as a single school district, it would be the ninth-largest in the country and among the worst-performing.

The foundation stops short of calling for a moratorium on new virtual charters, but says, "It is clear that what exists doesn't create the academic opportunities children need."

In their column, Marc Sternberg, the director of education giving at the Walton Family Foundation, and Marc Holley, the foundation's evaluation-unit director, write: (This is a short excerpt. Please read full piece at Ed Week.)

 We funded three research studies—by the Center for Research on Education Outcomes (or CREDO), at Stanford University; the Center on Reinventing Public Education, at the University of Washington; and Mathematica Policy Research—to investigate this question. As with all of our research dollars, we committed to funding these research teams regardless of what their investigations revealed.

The results are, in a word, sobering. The CREDO study found that over the course of a school year, the students in virtual charters learned the equivalent of 180 fewer days in math and 72 fewer days in reading than their peers in traditional charter schools, on average. This is stark evidence that most online charters have a negative impact on students' academic achievement. The results are particularly significant because of the reach and scope of online charters: They currently enroll some 200,000 children in 200 schools operating across 26 states. If virtual charters were grouped together and ranked as a single school district, it would be the ninth-largest in the country and among the worst-performing.

Funders, educators, policymakers, and parents cannot in good conscience ignore the fact that students are falling a full year behind their peers in math and nearly half a school year in reading, annually. For operators and authorizers of these schools to do nothing would constitute nothing short of educational malpractice.


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Maureen Downey has written editorials and opinion pieces about local, state and federal education policy since the 1990s.