New guidance offers tips for virtual learning policy

Virtual learning wasn’t created to accommodate students during pandemic-related school closures, but with more students enrolled than ever before in virtual programs — and districts throughout the country considering making them a permanent option — it is critical that policymakers develop virtual school frameworks that ensure students have a rigorous, high-quality educational experience.

In the 2019–20 school year, full-time virtual schools enrolled more than 330,000 students, and statewide programs provided over 1 million courses, continuing a trend of year-over-year growth. During the 2020–21 academic year, full- and part-time virtual enrollment skyrocketed, accounting for nearly 40 percent of enrollment declines in traditional public schools.

New guidance from the Education Commission of the States, “A Policymaker’s Guide to Virtual Schools,” includes a breakdown of four types of virtual schools and their governance structures, the latest research on virtual school and student performance, legislative examples and initiatives from at least 20 states, and four policy areas lawmakers should focus on to ensure quality among virtual schools.

“Although pandemic enrollment levels are unlikely to be sustained with a return to in-person instruction, virtual schooling has emerged as a significant part of the public-school landscape,” the guidance reads. “While there has been a substantial amount of legislative action over the last five years, some virtual schools are still governed by policies developed for brick-and-mortar schools that are not necessarily conducive to meaningful oversight of a virtual school.”

Virtual schooling can be beneficial to students, as it offers far more schedule flexibility and can provide additional access to varied courses and opportunities for personalized learning. However, mixed research findings suggest that challenges surrounding student engagement, academic outcomes, and school and resource management must be overcome.

Research shows improvements are needed

Existing research has mostly focused on virtual charter schools, which account for the largest enrollment share of full-time online students. Students enrolled in these schools tend to “experience weaker academic growth and regression in academic measures, increased mobility, and lower graduation rates” when controlling for other factors that may influence outcomes, such as socioeconomic status. Beyond virtual charter schools, however, state-specific studies from Florida and Michigan into other virtual school types also find a wide degree of variation in school quality and performance.

To enhance virtual schooling, state policymakers have largely focused on four areas:

  • Authorization and approval – Some states have adopted approval standards for virtual schools and course providers that are similar to charter school authorization requirements, while others have implemented authorization or approval requirements unique to virtual schools.
  • Student attendance and engagement – Policymakers have or are in the process of developing more flexible definitions of attendance that go beyond the amount of time a student is logged in, establishing progress monitoring provisions and setting family engagement requirements.
  • Teachers and instruction – Virtual instruction requires an entirely different pedagogical approach. Throughout the country, policymakers have implemented new teacher training and certification requirements specific to using digital resources and sought to improve instructional quality through licensure requirements, professional development and student-teacher contact time requirements, among other shifts.
  • Funding – Performance-based funding has emerged as an increasingly popular policy option for virtual schools, with some states establishing a fully performance- or completion-based system and others adopting aspects of performance-based funding. States have also used alternative funding schedules for virtual schools.

The guidance emphasizes the importance of targeting efforts and funding where they are most needed to improve student outcomes.

“A substantial recent investment in virtual learning infrastructure, coupled with increased demand for full- and part-time virtual options, provides state education policymakers with a unique opportunity to craft a policy framework specific to virtual schools,” the guidance concludes. “State policymakers can use policy levers such as authorization and approval, attendance and engagement, teachers and instruction, and school funding to prioritize accountability and program quality across the various virtual school types operating in states.”