Too many students lack access to courses; state virtual schools can help close the gap

Many high schools do not offer a wide range of courses. The US Department of Education reports that nationwide “only 50% of high schools offer calculus, and only 63% offer physics…[and] between 10-25% of high schools do not offer more than one of the core courses in the typical sequence of high school math and science education — such as Algebra I and II, geometry, biology, and chemistry.” In addition to national research, from time to time we see state-level reports on the same issues. Rural kids get fewer AP classes reports that “a first-of-its-kind analysis of high-school courses offered by Ohio districts finds that students living in poorer, more rural areas of the state have access to fewer overall classes, and far fewer high-level courses, than do students living in suburban and urban districts.” We know that online courses can help fill the gap, and Keeping Pace 2014 research shows how some states are supporting state virtual schools to help meet the needs of students seeking online courses.

Keeping Pace defines state virtual schools as programs created by legislation or by a state level agency, and/or administered by a state education agency, and/or funded by a state appropriation or grant for the purpose of providing online learning opportunities across the state. State virtual schools’ main activity is providing supplemental online courses to students who are enrolled in a physical school. They may provide a full course load to a few students as well.

State virtual schools served 741,516 supplemental online course enrollments in 26 states in SY 2013–14, a number that was about the same as the prior year. Florida Virtual School (FLVS) is by far the largest state virtual school and accounts for 50% of all course enrollments in state virtual schools nationally. Its course enrollments dropped 8% to 377,508 in SY 2013–14. Excluding FLVS, total enrollments in all other state virtual schools increased by 9.7% in SY 2013–14.

State virtual schools are diverging into two different groups: those that are large and growing, and those that are small and either shrinking or, at best, maintaining their enrollment numbers. The state virtual schools in Georgia, New Hampshire, North Carolina, Virginia, and West Virginia all saw double-digit growth each of the last two years. In Colorado, Iowa, Hawaii, Mississippi, and Utah, state virtual school enrollments have dropped in each of the last two years, and these all have small enrollment totals. The largest of these was Utah which served 4,741 course enrollments, while Colorado is the smallest established state virtual school in the country, serving 914 enrollments in SY 2013–14 (the only program that is smaller is Alaska’s Learning Network, which served 608 course enrollments in SY 2013–14 and only opened in SY 2012–13).

State virtual schools that grew substantially include the following:

  • North Carolina Virtual Public School (NCVPS) served 104,799 course enrollments in SY 2013–14, an annual increase of 11%, making it the second largest state virtual school in the country.
  • Georgia Virtual School (GAVS) served 33,041 course enrollments in SY 2013–14, a 28% increase over the previous year. This increase appears at least in part to be due to a bill passed in 2012, SB289, which stated that all students in grades 9–12 may enroll in online courses in GAVS without approval of the student’s home district, “regardless of whether the school in which the student is enrolled offers the same course.” It also eliminated a limit of one GAVS course per semester per student. In addition, all districts must provide written information on both part- and full-time online learning options to parents of all students in grades 3–12.
  • In SY 2014–15 Virtual Arkansas is completing a transition into the role of primary coordinator of digital learning services, replacing first the Arkansas Virtual High School in 2012, and then the former Arkansas Distance Learning Consortium (ARDL) in 2013. In SY 2013–14 Virtual Arkansas served 3,734 online supplemental courses to students in 149 schools, an 87% increase. Arkansas school districts pay a $2,500 annual membership fee to schedule courses with state-approved, state-funded providers, as well as a fee of $25 per student enrollment.

These are examples of growth, but not all state virtual schools are growing. The next blog post will explore state virtual schools that have flat or declining enrollments.

For additional detail see the Keeping Pace 2014 map detailing state virtual schools and enrollments.