Authorizers Playing Catch-Up With Online Charters, Best Practices Few, Report Says

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Posted: April 13, 2011

Authorizers responsible for oversight of online and blended learning charter schools “know they have not caught up” with the swift growth in the field and that there are “very few established best practices,” according to a report backed by the National Association of Charter School Authorizers (NACSA). Quality Authorizing for Online and Blended-Learning Charter Schools, the first in what will be a series of reports about authorizing and online learning, involved interviews with authorizers in Georgia, Michigan, Nevada, Ohio, Pennsylvania, South Carolina and Utah. NACSA engaged the Evergreen Education Group and The Donnell-Kay Foundation, both of Colorado, to prepare the report. NACSA plans additional publications and webinars to help authorizers address the new opportunities and challenges related to online learning.

The April 2011 report highlights key challenges, including accountability for student achievement, the provision of special education, building authorizers’ capacity, and determining what level of funding is appropriate for online programs. Characteristics of online charter schools are described in the report, which notes that the policy framework for the schools varies widely by state and that they often operate in “conjunction with for-profit EMOs” that run the schools’ day-to-day operations.

The report states that to ensure public accountability, authorizers must customize oversight, “adding scrutiny in areas that are appropriate only for online education while removing oversight from items that are applicable only to brick-and-mortar charter schools.” Authorizers said student mobility and its impact on longitudinal assessments of achievement poses a challenge because, compared to brick-and-mortar schools, online schools are likely to have a greater proportion of students who are enrolled for part of the year, but not when testing occurs. States with “unique student identifiers” are better able to track students’ school changes, but how to attribute student performance to a specific school is an issue.

The question about expertise about online education extends to charter school board membership, the report says. “And there is limited ability to visit a place where the activity of the school is directly observable,” according to the report. In a similar vein, authorizers noted concern about the accessibility of board meetings for students’ parents, suggesting that those meetings take place online. Determining funding levels for online schools can be “particularly challenging when each state determines the funding for each pupil differently, while working with EMOs that leverage efficiencies nationally.” “The sustainable, long-term growth of online and blended schools requires that policy frameworks keep pace with educational practice,” the report says.