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West Virginia Republicans are betting virtual charter schools could succeed online, where public schools struggled and access is limited.

GOP lawmakers are pushing legislation that would use state taxpayer money to enroll as many as one in 10 public school students in virtual charter schools.

“I’m trying to make certain that those options are available, that are good, and proven,” said Senate Education Committee Chairwoman Patricia Rucker, R-Jefferson. “They have years of experience. They have prepared educators. They have technology, and they know what works. So why are we refusing to look at what has worked?”

State officials widely acknowledge remote learning didn’t work for many students after the pandemic forced schools to teach students remotely. The extent of schools’ struggles is shrouded by a lack of academic data from state education officials. But the problems were not unique to West Virginia.

“There is no question that virtual learning in the context of COVID has faced numerous challenges,” said Joseph Waddington, a University of Kentucky assistant professor who researches school choice. “And kids are not receiving, by and large, the same quality of education that they did when they were in the classroom normally.”

But he and other experts generally view virtual charters as a bad bet to perform better than public schools.

“We believe that virtual charter schools are ill-equipped to take on a more prominent role in light of this global crisis, and recommend that both parents and school administrators be extremely wary of virtual charters’ attempts to expand during this crisis,” Waddington and other professors wrote in a Brookings Institution think tank column last year.

“Based on their dismal track record, policymakers should instead focus on greater oversight and accountability for these schools,” they wrote. “Perhaps the worst policy response during the COVID-19 crisis is to promote these schools.”

Switched from traditional public to virtual charter schools, “these kids’ achievement drops like a ton of bricks,” the University of Notre Dame’s Mark Berends said.

A sociology professor who researches educational inequalities and school choice, Berends co-wrote the Brookings column and authored a peer-reviewed study on Indiana’s online charters.

“The type of education they think kids might receive might be a little oversold,” said Waddington, who also co-authored the Indiana study. “We found in Indiana ... that the average student-to-teacher ratio was 100 to one.”

House Bill 2012 sets no cap on student-teacher ratio, although the legislation could allow so-called authorizers to do that. “Authorizers” are organizations that rule on charter school applications and help oversee the schools they approve. The bill allows authorizers to set extra rules for charter schools serving prekindergarten through sixth grade but says nothing about higher grades.

For statewide virtual charters, the bill would create a new authorizer: an unelected board with members appointed by the governor and confirmed by senators.

Two statewide virtual charters would be allowed, and each could enroll up to 5% of public school students statewide, or more than 10,000 students apiece. Statewide public school enrollment was 252,357 last fall, according to West Virginia Department of Education data.

Republicans jettisoned Friday a previously proposed temporary cap of 1,500 for each of the statewide virtual charters.

National Public Radio reported a surge in online charter enrollment amid the pandemic. Lawmakers pushing online charter schools surprises Waddington when scholars “have amassed a body of research evidence that suggests that kids enrolled in virtual charter schools perform terribly.”

NPR’s report noted Florida’s Miami-Dade County Public Schools hired for-profit online charter provider K12 Inc. to run its virtual education this fall, but quickly abandoned the outfit after numerous glitches.

K12 is now called Stride Inc. Rucker called on one of Stride’s four registered state lobbyists here last week to answer a Democrat’s questions.

Stride said it didn’t write West Virginia’s bill but supports it. The education company pointed to a working paper from pro-school choice group EdChoice showing that in spring 2020, when public schools first switched to remote learning, parents were more satisfied with Stride than their districts’ online options.

A frequently cited Stanford University Center for Research on Education Outcomes study found in 2013 that charter schools overall had begun slightly outperforming traditional public schools. But a 2015 center study found online charter students’ academic growth was significantly lower than traditional public students’.

Referring to online charter students, center Director Margaret E. Raymond told The Washington Post, “It is literally as if the kid did not go to school for an entire year.”

A year later, the Thomas B. Fordham Institute published a report showing online charter students in Ohio were lower achieving and performed worse on standardized tests than public school students.

Though he didn’t know the specifics of West Virginia’s bill, June Ahn, a University of California-Irvine associate professor who authored the Fordham report, said, “You have to give some pause. I wouldn’t recommend like a blanket expansion, for example. I think that’s probably a clear mistake.”

Student attendance, engagement and progress should be monitored, Ahn said. For-profit providers shouldn’t be simply allowed to “enroll as many students as they can, and then not support them and collect public money.”

Online virtual charters would get the same per-pupil subsidies as in-person charter schools under the state bill.

Despite their struggles, virtual charters can offer opportunities, especially in rural areas, said Chad Aldis, vice president for Ohio policy at the Fordham Institute.

“As long as there’s sufficient broadband, in many places an online charter school might be the only education choice,” Aldis said.

He also said the pandemic suggested that online education, regardless of the provider, is harder to get right.

Aldis suggested following Ohio’s relatively recent change basing funding for online schools not purely on enrollment but on audits of students’ work.

“You need to do whatever you can to ensure the students who are signing up are actually receiving the education they’re signing up for,” he said.

Senate Republicans strengthened some of the bill’s accountability provisions Friday, and because senators extended the amendment time frame through Monday, more guardrails could be inserted then.

Delegate Doug Smith, R-Mercer, the lead sponsor, said he believes out-of-state virtual charters could provide a better option than local public schools. But officials would need to review the schools’ track records.

“You don’t just go with any Tom, Dick or Harry,” he said.

Reach Ryan Quinn at ryan.quinn@wvgazettemail.com, facebook.com/ryanedwinquinn, 304-348-1254 or follow @RyanEQuinn on Twitter.

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