Virtual School Meanderings

February 4, 2016

Education Week Commentary – Walton Family Foundation: We Must Rethink Online Learning

You know that it is bad when even the Walton Family Foundation is knocking this free market, neo-liberal education reform.

Published Online: January 26, 2016
Published in Print: January 27, 2016, as Walton Family Foundation: Rethink Virtual Charters


Walton Family Foundation: We Must Rethink Online Learning

By its very definition, innovation will always lead to some failed starts. And when that innovation involves educating children, it’s especially important to learn from mistakes and adjust quickly.

The Walton Family Foundation has invested more than $385 million in creating new charter schools over more than two decades to seed educational innovation and improve U.S. education at scale. The foundation has allocated a small fraction of that investment—about $550,000—to virtual charter schools, which teach full-time students exclusively online.

We remain strong believers in creating educational options and opportunities. We have provided startup dollars to about a quarter of the charter schools in the United States, all with the goal of creating opportunity for high-needs students, and we recently committed to investing another $1 billion over the next five years to expand access to high-quality educational choices. In recent years, we have hoped that online charter schools could provide a lifeline for some students. But while we were enthusiastic about supporting online education entrepreneurs, our first priority is always making sure that students are served well.



Measuring impact is fundamental to responsible philanthropy. It is a responsibility we take seriously. The Walton Family Foundation spends about $10 million annually underwriting the nation’s best researchers to investigate questions that will help us make smarter funding decisions to benefit high-needs students, develop promising new technologies and methods to fuel student learning, and help parents, educators, and policymakers improve outcomes for children.

As the largest private funder of charter schools and as strong believers in making fact-based decisions, we wanted to see the hard evidence on virtual charters: What would a dependable measure of the impact of these schools show about their students’ academic growth? 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.

“As states think about the future of online education, they should rethink their expectations and policies and test novel policy arrangements.”

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.

As a result of these findings, we at the foundation will ask new, more rigorous questions of online charter operators when we review their funding proposals, in order to expose whether applicants are addressing the problems this research identified. In particular, we want to know: Are the operators suggesting innovative solutions to improve the quality of online learning? There is no magic formula here, but it is clear that what exists doesn’t create the academic opportunities children need. Going forward, we’ll probe deeply on applicants’ answers to the following questions:

What does the proposed instructional program look like? Just as it is important in traditional brick-and-mortar schools for students to spend time with teachers, virtual schools must provide plenty of time for students to learn and interact in live, synchronous ways with their teachers. In today’s online charters, students typically have less instructional time with their teachers in a whole week than students in brick-and-mortar schools have in a day. We don’t presume to know what the best pedagogical approach is for all children, but clearly this formula needs to change.

What are the proposed teacher-student ratios? Today’s online schools have much larger ratios than their brick-and-mortar counterparts. It’s unclear what the right balance is, but it seems clear that schools must facilitate interactions between students and teachers.


What are the expectations of parents? Virtual schools must help students learn without requiring parents to be constantly present and monitoring progress. Parents, of course, must be involved in their children’s education, but schools can’t abdicate their responsibility in this equation. Virtual charter educational providers should be thinking through the right role for parents and how schools will meet their own educational remits.

We urge policymakers to make changes, too. Charter authorizers—government-sanctioned bodies responsible for reviewing and approving charter operators—must take action if schools are failing students. And the oversight of educational practice applies to authorizers, as well as to schools and educators. Authorizers should be graded on the performance of their portfolios: If schools fail students, authorizers must take action. If they don’t, authorizers themselves should be put out of business.

Going forward, authorizers should create new accountability systems to ensure that no school fails, month after month and year after year. The review process must include observation of instruction and close review of student and parent expectations. We think a shorter review cycle, rather than waiting years, might catch problems earlier.

As states think about the future of online education, they should rethink their expectations and policies and test novel policy arrangements. For example, one policy that we think has potential would tie funding to performance. Four states—Florida, Minnesota, New Hampshire, and Utah—are currently testing performance-based funding systems. Perhaps we’ll discover that providing virtual schools funding only after students demonstrate mastery is the right way to hold these publicly funded schools accountable.

That said, with this approach, it would be important to guard against perverse incentives that could arise. For example, policymakers would need to make sure that schools weren’t pushing out or otherwise neglecting students who are so far behind that getting them to pass required courses or summative assessments would appear extremely resource-intensive.

Other funding reforms worth considering are tracking enrollments and providing associated student-based funding each month, rather than annually. This would help prevent students from being easily forgotten.

To be clear, our comments about online charter schools are not an indictment of instructional technology or online learning more generally, nor how these stand to help create more high-quality educational options. Nor is this the Walton Family Foundation abandoning its mission of creating more educational opportunities for American children. There are many examples of technology being used in conventional classrooms in ways that enhance learning. New blended learning models are showing promise, as is allowing students to customize learning through the use of online platforms.

But the data from this study do not lie: Online education must be reimagined. Ignoring the problem—or worse, replicating failures—serves nobody.

Vol. 35, Issue 19, Pages 24-25, 27

January 28, 2016

“National School Choice Week” Fueled by Major Right-Wing Funders and Corporate Lobby Groups

A good reminder for folks about this corporate-driven, privatization effort in public education.

“National School Choice Week” Fueled by Major Right-Wing Funders and Corporate Lobby Groups


Contact: Nikolina Lazic,

MADISON, WI — With 32 governors proclaiming this week “School Choice Week,” and more than 16,000 scheduled events listed on the promotional website, #NationalSchoolChoiceWeek has become a big deal, and not by accident.

Launched five years ago by the Gleason Family Foundation—which spent more than $4.3 million on the project in 2014—the week has grown rapidly through the backing of advocacy groups and deep pockets of funders focused on promoting charters, vouchers, and tax credits that aid private schools, including religious and for-profit ventures.

In federal and state budgets, “school choice” policies often divert or reduce Americans’ tax dollars available for traditional public schools that educate our most underserved students or for investment in sustainable and innovative community schools that are truly public.

Today, for example, the State Policy Network (SPN) is holding a “Tweet-up” to promote school “choice” and its fight “to limit government and advance market-friendly public policy at the state and local levels,” and the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC) is using the week to pitch a “revolutionary” universal education savings account bill for Washington, DC, introduced by Senator Ted Cruz.

The Center for Media and Democracy, a watchdog group on corporate influence on public policy, is urging reporters to examine the interests behind the PR push on school choice.

“The National School Choice Week website’s Partners page provides a who’s-who gallery of Koch network groups, corporations, and billionaires promoting privatization,” said Lisa Graves, CMD’s Executive Director, adding: “although the week features many local events, it is backed by national entities, some of which are hostile to the idea of public schools and whose goals have included full privatization. No story about National School Choice Week is complete if it does not mention the special interests behind the choice agenda.”

NCSW’s website lists numerous partners, including the Walton Family Fund, ALEC, SPN, the Freedom Foundation, FreedomWorks, Cato Institute, Reason Foundation, the Heritage Foundation, the James Madison Institute, and the U.S. Chamber of Commerce—many of which have ties to the Koch brothers’ political network. David Koch ran for Vice President in 1980 on a platform that included privatizing public schools, and his brother Charles started pushing school choice in the 1960s. Together they have funded an array of groups that spread that agenda.

For example, both SPN and ALEC have received financial support from the Koch funding network in addition to corporations. ALEC is a pay-to-play operation whose board includes K12, a for-profit “virtual” school company that has also sponsored SPN activities. At ALEC task force meetings, corporate lobbyists and special interest groups vote as equals with legislators on bills to expand charters, vouchers, and tax credits that serve the choice agenda—in addition to other bills that attack worker rights, environmental protections, and more. Koch Industries has been on ALEC’s board for decades and the Koch family fortune is one of the biggest funders of ALEC.

As CMD has documented, the charter school industry has been fueled by more than $3.6 billion from the federal government over the past two decades in addition to billions from states and from wealthy choice advocates like the billionaire Walton and DeVos families. This surge in cash has created a league of lobbyists urging legislators to send more tax dollars to this industry.

Here are some additional resources CMD has created about the school privatization effort:

CMD also notes that People for the American Way (PFAW) has published a useful, detailed report: “The Agenda of National School Choice Week: Don’t Be Blinded by the Bright Yellow Scarves.” Also, the Center for Popular Democracy (CPD) has documented more than $200 million in fraud and waste by charter schools. Additionally, In the Public Interest (ITPI) also has resources on charter schools and school privatization, including polling. (CMD has worked with ITPI, CPD, and PFAW on issues.)

Dustin Beilke

Dustin Beilke is a freelance writer from Madison, WI. He has written for a number of publications, including Newsday,, The Nation, PRWatchThe Progressive, In These Times, Mother Jones, The Capital Times, and The Onion.

January 18, 2016

Article Notice: Focus on Technology – Virtual Charter Schools in the United States

Folks may not have noticed this item in the EBSCO Alerts over the weekend.

Childhood Education

Volume 92, Issue 1, 2016


Hani Morgan, Editor

pages 92-94

Focus on Technology: Virtual Charter Schools in the United States

Note that the full text is available at the website.

December 28, 2015

Report – How Charter School Governance in Pennsylvania and Philadelphia Measures Up

Another item that may have gone under the radar screen over the holidays…

There are over two dozen references to virtual or cyber charters in the report.  Below is the top sheet information and the actual report can be found at:

charter schoolGetty Images / Klaus Vedfelt

Philadelphia has the nation’s third-largest charter school population.

Charter schools are tuition-free, taxpayer-supported institutions that are granted the right to operate without many of the rules that govern traditional public schools. Most hold classes in buildings, but some, known as cyber or virtual charters, operate online. Questions surrounding the way charters are authorized, regulated, renewed, and shut down are a major component of the debate about public education in Pennsylvania, particularly in the School District of Philadelphia. Over half of the state’s roughly 160 brick-and-mortar charters are located in the district, and the city’s charter school population—more than 60,000, accounting for about 30 percent of its public school students—is the nation’s third-largest, behind the districts serving Los Angeles and New York City. Only four large districts—New Orleans, Detroit, the District of Columbia, and Cleveland—have higher percentages of students in charters than does Philadelphia.

To gain perspective on charter school governance in the School District of Philadelphia and the state, The Pew Charitable Trusts compared the rules under which charters operate in Pennsylvania with those in 15 other states, all of which have at least one major urban school district with a substantial number or percentage of its students in charters. The states are California, Colorado, Florida, Georgia, Illinois, Indiana, Maryland, Massachusetts, Michigan, Minnesota, New Jersey, New York, Ohio, Texas, and Wisconsin. Nationally, 43 states and the District of Columbia permit charters.

The comparison showed that although regulation varies among states, Pennsylvania’s approach is similar to what a number of other states are doing. But there are differences, too, including the low percentage of charters it has closed in recent years and the high percentage of noncertified teachers it allows charters to employ. Among the additional findings:

  • In Pennsylvania, the authority to create brick-and-mortar charter schools rests with the governing body of each local district, which in Philadelphia is the School Reform Commission. Similar authorization processes are in place in five of the other 15 states studied. In two states, the state education department has sole responsibility to create charters. The other eight have multiple entities that can authorize them, including local school boards, mayors, the state, and universities.
  • Oversight responsibility, which includes decisions about opening and closing charter schools, almost always rests with the authorizing body or bodies, as it does in Pennsylvania. The states’ accountability requirements for schools are similar.
  • Charters in most of the states, including Pennsylvania, are granted blanket waivers from the rules governing traditional public schools. Uncertified teachers are permitted to make up as much as 25 percent of a charter’s teaching staff in Pennsylvania, a higher percentage than is allowed in most of the other states.
  • In recent years, Pennsylvania has been among the states least likely to open or close charter schools. On average, it increased the number of charters in the state by 7.5 percent per year; the median for the states studied was 9.4 percent. Closings decreased the number of charters in Pennsylvania by 1.3 percent; the median was 3.4 percent. In most of the states examined, including Pennsylvania, charters were usually closed for financial mismanagement and, on occasion, suspected fraud, although poor academic performance also led to closures.
  • Relative to the other states studied, Pennsylvania has a high percentage of charter students enrolled in statebased cybercharters. Across the country, seven states bar charters of any kind, and 11 others do not allow cybercharters.

November 14, 2015

New and Noteworthy from Mathematica

Note the K-12 online learning item about half way down…

This message contains graphics. If you do not see the graphics, click here to view.

Mathematica Policy Research Logo

NOVEMBER 11, 2015

New & Noteworthy Banner


American Evaluation Association and Association for Public Policy Analysis and Management presentations

Chicago Education Research Presentation Series


We are looking for asecurity program analyst.

Improving public well-being by conducting high quality, objective research and data collection.

©2015 Mathematica Policy Research
P.O. Box 2393
Princeton, NJ
Phone: (609) 799-3535
Fax: (609) 799-0005

Email comments or questions

Click here to unsubscribe

Evidence-Based Standards for Mental Health InterventionsJonathan Brown, associate director of health research, discussed measure development and implementation for evidence-based mental health interventions with an Institute of Medicine committee. Read the white paper,“Strategies for Measuring the Quality of Psychotherapy,” co-authored by Mathematica and the National Committee for Quality Assurance.

Tweet this

Experts Contribute to Child Obesity Policy Agenda

Senior fellows Ronette Briefel and Mary Kay Fox are members of anAmerican Academy of Pediatrics policy roundtable series on developing a comprehensive and actionable policy agenda for healthy weight from prenatal development through age 5. About the series.

Tweet this

Online Charter Schools Struggle to Engage Students

Charter school artwork

A new report describes online charter schools that deliver instruction to students in their homes. The report uses surveys of principals to provide the first nationwide picture of how online charter schools operate. It finds that although these schools use innovative methods, they also have high student-teacher ratios, make substantial demands on parents, and typically provide students with only three to six hours of live instructional time per week. Fact sheet.

Tweet this



Using Administrative Data to Improve Child WelfarePhoto of children sitting in a group

In this podcast, Ann Person, director of the Center for Improving Research Evidence (CIRE), and senior fellow Matthew Stagner explore trends in using administrative data to improve public child welfare programs, the focus of CIRE’s recent research forum.

Tweet this


Blog iconSenior researcher Yonatan Ben-Shalom discussed findings from the Stay-at-Work/Return-to-Work Policy Collaborative on The Hill’s Congress blog.


Tweet this

Social Media SpotlightTwitter graphic



“Staffing a Low-Performing School: Behavioral Responses to Selective Teacher Transfer Incentives.” This article in Education Finance and Policy(subscription required) examines responses to a program that offers incentives for high-performing teachers to transfer into their district’s hardest-to-staff schools.


“Medicaid 1115 Demonstration Evaluation Design Plan.” This report lays out the general design and approach of a national, cross-state evaluation of four different types of Medicaid section 1115 demonstrations: (1) delivery system reform incentive payments, (2) premium assistance for Medicaid expansions, (3) beneficiary engagement/premium payments, and (4) managed long-term services and supports. Key features.

“Hospital Acquisition of Physician Groups: On the Road to Value-Based or Higher-Priced Care?” Over the past two decades, hospitals have acquired an increasing number of physician practices to improve revenue and market share and also prepare for payment reforms. However, this study in JAMA Internal Medicine (subscription required) examines a growing body of research showing that costs increase when hospitals employ physician practices. Challenges and costs. Related CHCE forum.


Photo of woman and children walking in Bihar, Incia“Midline Findings from the Evaluation of the Ananya Program in Bihar.” This report evaluates the impacts of a comprehensive package of interventions that aim to improve maternal and child health in Bihar, India, after two years of implementation. Learn about the findings.

“Evaluation of the Zanzibar Interconnector Activity: Findings from the Hotel Study.” This study, part of the evaluation of an energy sector project in Tanzania, examined how the installation of an electrical cable connecting Zanzibar’s Unguja Island influenced outcomes for hotels. Hotel study findings.

About Us: Mathematica, a nonpartisan research firm, conducts policy research and surveys for federal and state governments, foundations, and private-sector and international clients. Our mission is to improve public well-being by bringing the highest standards of quality, objectivity, and excellence to bear on the provision of information collection and analysis to our clients.

TwitterTwitter Facebook Facebook Delicious Delicious  RSS  RSS

« Previous PageNext Page »

The Rubric Theme. Blog at


Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 4,662 other followers