An especially problematic part of House Bill 520 is its inclusion of virtual charter schools. There are numerous concerns about the quality of education provided by virtual charters as well as the potentially large diversion of local school district and state money to fund these schools.
Virtual charter schools offer K-12 education exclusively online. Under HB 520, they could enroll students located anywhere in Kentucky and would, like brick and mortar charters, receive state and local funding; it is of note that the companies managing these schools are often located out of state.
The bill does not include any limits on how many virtual schools could open in Kentucky or how many students could enroll. Because virtual charters present no transportation limitations for students like with brick and mortar charters, the enrollment potential is very large and could affect every school district. If virtual charters attract new students who are not now enrolled in public schools (such as private school or home school students), it could mean added costs or further dilution of existing school dollars since HB 520 requires charters be funded on a per student basis.
Concerns about virtual charters have been widely reported and are shared even by some pro-charter organizations. There are many troubling reports of low student achievement (including graduation rates), students being enrolled but not having the necessary computer equipment to participate, students not even using the educational software on which teaching and learning are based, questionable management practices, and the role of aggressive and well-funded lobbying in driving these virtual charters. Research also raises questions about whether, even in the best case scenarios, online charter schools can be effective in promoting student achievement given the limited student-teacher interaction involved.
In addition to concerns about state and local education money being invested in an educational approach with so many problems, in HB 520 local school boards would lose control of funds to virtual charters located anywhere in the state; this includes money raised because communities voted to increase taxes to support their schools. In addition, there is no accountability from the virtual charter to the school boards that raised the money for how these funds are used. Meanwhile, out of state management companies hired by virtual charter schools could make a profit from the scarce education dollars our state and its local communities have generated.
Even though HB 520 sets school boards as the authorizers of charter schools, it also provides an opportunity for applicants to appeal to the state Board of Education if a local district rejects a charter school application. That could be the avenue through which virtual schools proliferate without the support of locally-elected school officials.
Virtual charter schools have a poor track record and could have a large negative impact on the funding of Kentucky’s existing public schools. They should be rejected.