Despite mediocre records, for-profit online charter schools are selling parents on staying virtual
As parents fearful of coronavirus’s spread and frustrated with their schools’ forays into remote learning seek other options, they are increasingly turning to virtual for-profit charter schools. At the Ohio Distance and Electronic Learning Academy (OHDELA), enrollment more than doubled to about 5,200 students in the 2020-2021 school year, according to state data. At Stride Inc., the nation’s biggest for-profit operator of charters, enrollment grew by 45 percent, to almost 157,000, and revenues in its general education division rose 37 percent. Pearson, the parent company of Connections Education, the second largest for-profit online charter operator, reported enrollment growth in its virtual schools division of 20 percent in 2020.
One reason for the growth is the sort of advertisement which often touts the schools’ long experience in online instruction and teachers specially trained in remote learning. Equipped with big advertising budgets, the schools have stepped up their marketing during the pandemic, often advertising on children’s channels.
Yet the advertising belies these schools’ records serving students. OHDELA gets an F rating from the Ohio Department of Education, receiving failing marks on measures including students’ performance on state tests, academic growth and graduation rates. Overall, about 63 percent of virtual for-profit schools were rated unacceptable by their states in the latest year for which data was available, according to a May 2021 report by the University of Colorado’s National Education Policy Center (NEPC). Online charters typically lag behind other schools on measures including student academic outcomes and graduation rates, and have also been plagued by high student turnover.