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Virtual School Enrollments Grow. Performance, Research Evidence, and Policymaking Missing in Action

BOULDER, CO (May 6, 2021) – Virtual Schools in the U.S. 2021 provides vital scholarly analyses of virtual schools at a time of increased enthusiasm for moving schooling online, nationally and internationally. The report examines the characteristics and performance of full-time, publicly funded K-12 virtual schools. It also reviews the relevant available research related to virtual school practices, provides an overview of recent state legislative efforts to craft virtual school policy, and offers policy recommendations based on the available evidence.

A team of researchers led by Alex Molnar, Gary Miron, Michael Barbour, Luis Huerta, and Jennifer King Rice found that enrollments in virtual schools have continued to climb, with 477 full-time virtual schools enrolling 332,379 students in 2019-2020. Yet this growth of the sector has continued despite scant research to support it and continued poor overall performance. Not only did the proportion of acceptable performance ratings for full-time virtual schools drop in 2019-2020 to 42.8%, but the average graduation rate of 54.6% for these schools falls well below the 85% overall average national graduation rate. Furthermore, the sector is dominated by for-profit providers. Although for-profit EMOs operated only 29.8% of full-time virtual schools, these schools enrolled 59.1% of all virtual school students.

Policymakers have yet to adequately address six pressing areas of concern related to virtual schools: their governance, funding, accountability, curriculum, instruction quality, and teacher quality. Nor have policymakers figured out how to regulate virtual schools’ student-teacher ratios or ensure that virtual schools provide access and an equitable education for every student.

The report is organized into three sections: (1) Full-Time Virtual and Blended Schools: Enrollment, Student Characteristics, and Performance; (2) Research into Virtual and Blended Schools: A Lasting Legacy of Little Impact; and (3) Key Policy Issues in Virtual Schools: Finance and Governance, Instructional Quality, and Teacher Quality. Altogether, the report offers a number of recommendations for policymakers, including:

  • Use performance data to inform funding decisions.
  • Create goals for a comprehensive research program designed to help develop policy for, and improve practice in, virtual and blended schools.
  • Identify and maintain data on teachers and instructional staff that will allow education leaders and policymakers to monitor staffing patterns and assess the quality and professional development needs of teachers in virtual schools.
  • Develop new funding formulas based on the actual costs of operating virtual schools.
  • Develop guidelines and governance mechanisms to ensure that virtual schools do not prioritize profit over student performance.

Find Virtual Schools in the U.S. 2021, by Alex Molnar, Gary Miron, Michael Barbour, Luis Huerta, and Jennifer King Rice at:

This research brief was made possible in part by support provided by the Great Lakes Center for Education Research and Practice:

The National Education Policy Center (NEPC), a university research center housed at the University of Colorado Boulder School of Education, produces and disseminates high-quality, peer-reviewed research to inform education policy discussions. Visit us at: