VIRTUAL CAUTION: Idaho's On-Line Charter Schools


Nothing builds educational success like parental involvement. Decades of research has shown this. But how is this best accomplished?

We're encouraged that you're taking the time to explore this crucial question. Our desire is to offer an explanation for the remarkable academic and social success of private home education. And, in the process, to explain why students in Idaho's on-line public school programs tend to struggle.

That's not to say that all students in these programs languish. Some excel, primarily in those situations where the parents are fully engaged in the program. But both the quality and the drawbacks of the entire program must be assessed by the outcomes produced as a whole.

To the surprise of many, research by the Idaho Department of Education has determined that virtual charter schools produce academic achievement that can only be described as anemic. To make matters worse, by law such programs must be sanitized of any spiritual perspectives. And the cost savings for the parents of students enrolled in those programs have proven to be overstated.

So, for parents for whom these factors are important, we would encourage them to carefully consider embracing private home education -- the method that produces unequaled results academically, socially, and spiritually.

Private Home Schooling: The Gold Standard

Three decades ago, home education was either illegal or highly suspicious in most of the United States. Since then, a quantum shift has occurred. Today, the practice is legal in every state. And in the minds of many Americans, it is the educational choice that produces (1) the highest academic achievement, (2) the lowest rate of peer dependence, and (3) the highest rate of spiritual faithfulness that endures into adulthood.

Decades of research data demonstrate that, regardless of the method of education used, the single most important factor in a child's academic success is the degree of parental involvement in that child's education. It is, therefore, not surprising that privately teaching one's children at home yields remarkable academic achievement. On the Iowa Tests administered each year by the Idaho Coalition of Home Educators (ICHE), the median score among home schooled students is typically between the 78th and 84th percentile.

Students who have been taught at home have also been demonstrated to be significantly less peer-dependent or peer-dominated than students who attend public schools. Likewise, they are more socially well-adjusted and come to spiritual commitments that tend to survive into adulthood.

Although it is still practiced by less than 3% of families in this country, home schooling has come to be generally recognized as the gold standard among educational options.

There is also a widespread assumption that the students enrolled in the virtual charter schools will enjoy the same academic, social, and spiritual successes and benefits currently enjoyed by students who are being privately taught at home. But a careful look at these public school programs and the students that are enrolled in them reveals a dramatically different picture.

Anemic: Virtual Academics

Virtual charter schools tend to paint a rosy, but nonspecific, picture of the academic achievement of their students. But it turns out that this picture is far from accurate.

In a 2008 study1, it had been noted that students enrolled in Idaho's brick-and-mortar charter schools scored measurably higher on Idaho's federally-mandated assessment tests than did students enrolled in Idaho's non-charter schools.

But in January of 2010, the Idaho Department of Education published a study that compared the academic achievement of students in the virtual charter schools with that of students in the rest of the public school system. To that point the general expectation was that students in the virtual charter schools would show academic excellence both because they are being taught at home and because they are enrolled in public charter schools. After all, how could a program with similarities to two such outstanding educational options produce anything but strong academic achievement?

Contrary to what most had expected, the 2010 report2 showed that:

  1. While students in Idaho's brick-and-mortar charter schools scored significantly higher on the state assessment tests than did students in the regular public schools,
  2. Students in the virtual charter schools scored significantly lower on the same tests than did the students in the regular public schools.

Recent studies of virtual charter schools in Colorado3 and Minnesota4 show that half of the online students leave within a year. When they do, they're often further behind academically than when they started. Similarly, online schools produce more dropouts than graduates.

For parents concerned about the quality of their child's education, these reports should be alarming. After all, parents would never knowingly enroll their sons or daughters in programs that produce anemic academic results. But this cautionary information is virtually ignored by the Idaho Department of Education, as well as the virtual charter schools themselves, in their rush to assure parents of the academic successes of students in these programs.

And for the parents of an individual student, despite the enthusiastic assurances of the virtual charter schools themselves, it is very difficult to know if their child really is doing as well as he or she can. But the data collected by ICHE for over a decade has shown a persistent trend that has transported median public school students from their 54th percentile ranking on the Iowa Tests of Basic Skills to performance near the 80th percentile after just three years of private home education.

One Size Fits All?

Henry Ford is famously quoted as saying that one could buy his cars in any color so long as it was black. Virtual charter schools provide a similar lack of flexibility despite claims to the contrary.

Private home education has historically thrived in part due to its inherent flexibility, as to choice of curriculum, timing, and educational philosophy. Parents can select from any available curricula, including that which reflects the worldview of the parents. They can offer instruction in the subjects that are naturally of interest to their child's curiosity at that time. A student with a fascination with Roman history need not be forced to study Idaho history merely because that is what he would have studied that year in the public school. A student who has excelled in math will not be required to dawdle while her teacher instructs the rest of the class in the basics that this student has already mastered.

Likewise, in private home education a student who learns kinesthetically will not be hobbled to a program designed for students who are visual or auditory learners.

Virtual charter school programs, on the other hand, lack this flexibility for several reasons.

First, as a public school program, virtual charter schools are required to teach certain subjects at certain grade levels. It makes absolutely no difference that a student has a fascination with a different subject matter at the moment. Although virtual programs permit a limited ability to accelerate learning, all students at the same grade level will be required to move forward in lockstep. Students are not permitted to ignore one subject to embrace a different subject about which they are currently enthusiastic.

Second, most virtual charter school programs offer little, if any, flexibility in terms of curriculum. Every student in the Idaho Virtual Academy, for example, will be taught from the K12 curriculum to which the school subscribes. Although parents have the freedom to supplement that curriculum with other materials that may be better-suited to the needs of their child, they cannot choose to ignore the required curriculum.

Even in the IDEA program, which came to Idaho with promises that the parents could select the curriculum that best suited the needs of their child (and even the spiritual perspectives of the parent), the range of "approved" curricula has slowly narrowed over time. That program has methodically aligned its curriculum to the Idaho state standards. In the process, it has lost much of the flexibility that was initially promised to parents.

Private home education, on the other hand, allows parents to respond to "teachable moments." It permits parents to deviate from the planned program or curriculum to respond to the momentary curiosity of the child. In so doing, it delivers information that is eagerly grasped.

Likewise, private home schooling permits parents to select curriculum that is appropriate for the learning style of the child. Is the child a kinesthetic/tactile, an auditory, or a visual learner? By taking advantage of curricula designed for those with these particular learning styles, the level of academic mastery among students privately taught at home increases dramatically.

Other than the direct and active involvement of the student's parents in the instruction itself, it is this inherent flexibility that has enabled students taught at home in Idaho, and across the country, to excel academically. It has equipped those students to routinely score between the 80th and the 84thpercentile on standardized achievement tests.

Virtual charter schools, on the other hand, do not and cannot offer their students this same level of flexibility. All instruction is driven to conformity with the Common Core. Recently adopted by the state, these standards are forcing schools to teach all students the same thing at the same time in the same way.

The scores of virtual charter school students on the state-administered tests indicate that they are probably scoring on average below the 50th percentile. The documented scores of privately home educated students which are consistently above the 80th percentile prove conclusively that "one size does not fit all."

Parent Selected is not Parent Directed:

Decades of research demonstrates that the single most important factor in a child's academic success is the degree of the active parental involvement in that child's education.

There is some logic to the assumption that all instruction that occurs in the home must, of necessity, involve a high degree of parental involvement. But it turns out that mere proximity is not the same as active involvement.

Parents of students enrolled in the virtual charter school programs tend to be surprised at the time required of them in tedious record-keeping. Detailed documentation regarding the time spent, and the progress made, by the child on each subject consumes extensive amounts of the parent's time. Instead of leading the child in the discovery of great truths about which the child has an interest, the parent sometimes feels sidetracked by the magnitude of the paperwork and record-keeping involved.

A number of parents who have recently enrolled their students in virtual charter schools have done so in order to have the accountability of a certified teacher monitoring their child's work. Commendably, they want the training wheels in place to insure that nothing goes terribly wrong in this new educational endeavor. But ironically, the attention that is actually available from certified personnel is minimal since virtual charter school teachers are often assigned to monitor the school work of a substantial group of students. Within private home education, on the other hand, accountability can also be obtained using anything from a host of support groups to standardized testing (available annually from ICHE).

And, of course, the fact that students in private home schooling do so much better academically than students in the virtual charter schools brings into sharp focus the truth that the discipline and accountability available through the virtual charter school personnel may be illusory at best.

The truth is that the virtual charter schools have become something of a revolving door with more and more parents opting to dis-enroll their students after a few years of tedious record keeping.3,4 Once released from those shackles, those parents are then free to embrace the liberty available to private home schoolers. In doing so, they can then provide the optimal one-on-one tutoring of their children that produces the remarkable academic achievement that is characteristic of students in that sphere.

Worldview Matters:

In the early years of Idaho's virtual charter schools, parents were told that such schools would allow instruction that was consistent with the spiritual perspectives of the parents. But it has become evident that this claim can only be met through extraordinary efforts by the parents. Since the virtual charter schools are an integral part of the public school system in Idaho, their programs and curricula are legally required by the Idaho Constitution to be free of any religious or spiritual materials.

The practical effect of enrollment in a virtual charter school program is to bring the public school district into the home of the student. But Idaho's state Constitution is clear that it is illegal for school districts to spend any funds or use any resources in connection with a program or curriculum that includes religious instruction or principles. This precludes any public schools from teaching information or providing curriculum that embraces the religious or spiritual perspectives of the parents unless those perspectives are at least neutral, if not antagonistic, to spiritual matters.

For parents for whom the spiritual training of their children is a significant factor in their decision to seek alternative methods of education, this sanitization must not be minimized. While supplemental materials can push back against this institutionalized bias, the mere fact that supplemental efforts are utilized will send a confusing message to the children. What is a young pupil to believe when, in the morning he is taught social studies without any reference to ethics or morality, but in the afternoon he is re-taught the same information from an alternative perspective? Even if the parents are clear in expressing their beliefs to the child, how can the child help but wonder why the expert author of the published textbook has a different view from that of his parents?

The answer is that he can't. The parents in this scenario are inherently creating dangerous cracks in the foundation that they are laying for their child. Though the foundation may initially appear to be intact, the chances of a fracture and a rejection of the parents' faith later in life are increased by this juggling of lessons.

False Economy:

In our continuing uncertain economy, the decision to enroll in a virtual charter school is often motivated at least in part by presumed cost savings. After all, these schools typically provide the student with a computer or iPad and curricular materials. But parents should ask both of these important questions:

  1. How much are we really saving?
  2. What is expected of us in return?

Obviously, many parents of students enrolled in virtual charter schools spend relatively few dollars on their children's education. Almost everything is paid for by the public school district with which their children are enrolled except where the parents opt to spend their own funds to supplement with materials consistent with their faith.

Private home schoolers, on the other hand, pay for everything. So the question should be asked, how much does that really cost those parents? How inexpensively can a child be taught at home.

The truth is that some parents are doing an excellent job with little more than pencils, paper, and a public library card. For families with more than one child, curriculum and other materials can be "recycled" for use by the younger children as they get older. On average, parents who teach their children at home spend just $600 per year on the education of each child.

So the "savings" that parents enjoy in exchange for enrolling their child in a virtual charter school are really only $600 per year.

In exchange for that sum, the parents are required to spend a significant amount of time in efforts that are only marginally educational. The time keeping requirements, alone, are substantial. Grading workbooks and other non-instructional efforts are added on top of that. A parent whose child is enrolled in such a program can easily spend 200 to 300 hours per year on these "class monitor" activities. Plus, they are required to return all non-consumable supplies and curriculum to the on-line school at the end of the school year, consuming even more time.

In the final analysis, the parents may only be saving $2 to $3 per hour for their busywork - less than minimum wage.

More importantly, they are losing the great joy of being their child's full-time teacher, that responsibility now being shared with the computer, texts, and workbooks supplied by the program.


Enrollment in a virtual charter school can be a tempting option for the parents of students struggling in the public school system. But before making the switch, there are some important questions to answer. In deciding what will be best for your child, the first question to ask is why. What is it that you hope to accomplish by switching your child out of the public school system.

Each of these can be a compelling reason to search for an alternative to enrollment in the public schools. But the truth is that enrolling a child in one of Idaho's virtual charter school programs may have unfortunate effects.

Although the move from public school to enrollment in a virtual charter school will certainly diminish the destructive peer influences on a child, that benefit comes at the expense of mediocre academic achievement, an education sanitized of crucial spiritual perspectives, and tedious parental record-keeping for less than minimum wage "savings."

And above all else, it comes at the cost of the loss of the great joy and liberty that the parents could have received from independently teaching their own child at home.

1. http://www.legislature.idaho.gov/ope/publications/reports/r0803f.pdf
2. http://www.sde.idaho.gov/site/charter_schools/research/Research/Virtual%20School%20Study%202010.pdf
3. http://gazette.com/article/126009
4. http://www.auditor.leg.state.mn.us/ped/pedrep/k12ollsum.pdf

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