FAILING: Idaho's Virtual Charter Schools

By 2002, the first virtual charter school arrived in Idaho. Four years earlier, our legislature passed a law authorizing the creation of public charter schools. That law included the authority to create charter schools that were "virtual schools."

The first district to actually pursue this option was the Butte County School District in Arco, Idaho. It created the Idaho Virtual Academy (IVA), the first, and still the largest, virtual charter school in Idaho. It utilizes the K-12 curriculum developed by Bill Bennett, author of The Book of Virtues.

After studying this new phenomenon closely, ICHE published an initial policy statement that concluded that parents of students enrolled in Idaho's public schools would be making a step in the right direction to transfer those students to the new virtual charter school. But for parents who were already privately teaching their children at home, ICHE concluded that a move to the IVA would be a step in the wrong direction.

Two primary problems drove ICHE's conclusion that moving children from private home education to the IVA would be a move in the wrong direction.

First, the single curriculum available under the program is of concern. One of the great strengths of home education is rooted in the recognition that one size does not fit all. But once enrolled in the IVA, every student is forced through the same material at the same speed in lockstep fashion.

Second, the intentional and legally-mandated elimination of all faith-based instruction under the program is also disquieting. Parents of students enrolled in the IVA are forced to teach all of the materials in the program, regardless of whether they are consistent with the religious or philosophical beliefs of the parents. Private home educators, on the other hand, have access to a full range of curriculum and can tailor their children's lessons so that they are consistent with the parents' faith.

Based on those two factors, ICHE has always discouraged home schooling parents from enrolling their children in the virtual charter schools.

But ICHE initially regarded the enrollment of students from the public schools in the virtual charter schools as a move in the right direction. This conclusion was based primarily upon an assumption that has now proven to be incorrect. ICHE specifically made the logical, but unproven, presumption that the academic achievement of public school students who shifted to a virtual charter school would improve. We said, "For the typical public school student who enrolls in the Academy, improvements should result both academically and socially."

ICHE assumed that the academic excellence historically enjoyed by privately home schooled students would also be shared by students in the IVA. We presumed that the fact that the instruction in both instances occurred at home would translate to tangible test result improvements for those students previously enrolled in the public schools. This expectation was rooted in the well-documented academic improvement historically enjoyed by families that had withdrawn their children from the public schools and embarked on the adventure of private home education.

But it turns out that we were wrong. Very wrong.

A study recently conducted at the request of Idaho's Superintendent of Public Instruction and the chairmen of both the Senate and the House Education Committees was published earlier this year by the Idaho Department of Education. The authors of the study were tasked with determining how students in Idaho's virtual charter schools were performing on the state's assessment test, the ISAT.

For the period from 2003 through 2009, the researchers divided the ISAT and direct assessment test scores (ISAT) for all public school students into three groups. One group consisted of the ISAT scores of the students enrolled in Idaho's brick-and-mortar charter schools. The second group included the scores of all students enrolled in the regular brick-and-mortar public schools. The final group incorporated the scores of all students who were enrolled in any of the state's five virtual charter schools.

Then the researchers charted and compared the results.

Once all of the numbers were crunched, the results were startling. They showed that:

While ICHE had assumed that students in the virtual charter schools would thrive academically, they actually languished. Despite the high expectations for the students in the virtual charter schools, as a group they ended up scoring worse than all the other public school students in the state.

In fact, the scores of the students in the IVA in particular are so poor that the IVA faces a crisis. The federal No Child Left Behind Act sets benchmarks under which public schools are required to generate a certain proportion of students that make "adequate yearly progress" on their ISAT scores. Schools that fail to meet those standards will eventually be taken over by the state. Ultimately they can be shut down. And the IVA appears to be just a few years away from suffering that fate.

Perhaps that is why the curriculum provider being used by IVA recently set up another virtual charter school in the Bonneville County School District that uses the same curriculum. While it remains conjecture, one school of thought is that the curriculum provider wants to have another operation under way to which students may be transferred when the state shutters the IVA in a few years. Sadly, the students cast adrift when the IVA's Titanic sinks will be picked up by the Bonneville district's Lusitania. All in all, not a good transition to make.

But regardless of the intentions of the curriculum provider, the truth is that students enrolled in Idaho's virtual charter schools are struggling academically.

Sadly, few of the parents of students enrolled in Idaho's virtual charter schools are aware of this devastating report. And for the few parents that do know of the report, it is easy to rationalize continued participation in the program by assuming that these statistics somehow magically don't apply to their own children.

For ICHE, this report brings added impetus to our policy discouraging home schooling parents from enrolling their children in Idaho's public virtual charter schools.

For the parents of students who have enrolled their children in those programs, hopefully this report will be a wakeup call. For parents of students from the public schools, it's time to move forward to private home education. And for parents of IVA students previously home educated, a return to that lifestyle remains the best option.

The final report discussed in this article may be viewed on line at http://www.sde.idaho.gov/site/charter_schools/docs/ID%20VCS%20Draft%20Report_v4.pdf

Additional articles on virtual charter schools are available on-line under the "Charter Schools" heading in the ICHE "Issues Library" at http://iche-idaho.org/issues/.

Barry Peters is an attorney in private practice with offices in Eagle, Idaho, and is one of the legal advisors for both ICHE and CHOIS. His law practice focuses on the areas of wills & trusts, real estate contracts, and business formations.

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