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Virtual Schools Continue to Underperform, Have Little Research Support, and Lack Adequate Regulation

BOULDER, CO (May 11, 2023) – Virtual school performance, research, and policy have changed very little since 2013 when the National Education Policy Center began publishing regular comprehensive reports on virtual schooling. Virtual school performance remains poor, little if any research supports the claimed benefits of virtual schooling, and state regulatory policies are still inadequate. Nonetheless the unsupported claims are widely believed and virtual schools continue to proliferate.

Virtual Schools in the U.S. 2023 provides a scholarly analysis of the characteristics and performance of publicly funded K-12 virtual schools. It reviews the available research on virtual school practices, examines recent state legislative efforts, and provides policy recommendations.

Organized into three sections: (1) Full-Time Virtual Schools: Enrollment, Student Characteristics, and Performance; (2) Assessing Virtual Schools After a Global Pandemic: A Reality of Unfulfilled Promises; and (3) Key Policy Issues in Virtual Schools: Finance and Governance, Instructional Quality, and Teacher Quality, the brief’s recommendations to policymakers include:

  • Require federal and state education agencies to accurately identify and monitor full-time virtual schools, remedying gaps in information transparency on performance measures and accountability.
  • Establish requirements for reduced student-to-teacher ratios and regular contact between teachers and online students.
  • Slow or stop the growth of virtual schools until substantial academic and/or non-academic outcomes improve and benefits are comparable with brick-and-mortar public schools.
  • Require Individualized Education Plans for all students in virtual schools, akin to those special education students receive. The plans should indicate if students need standardized or personalized programs and then deliver content according to these plans.
  • Require virtual school graduation rates to align with statewide averages. If the virtual school fails to meet these benchmarks, assign it probationary status after a year and close after five years of probationary status.
  • Require virtual schools to maintain a within-school-year student mobility threshold equal to the mobility rate of brick-and-mortar schools.
  • Develop new accountability structures for virtual schools, calculate the revenue needed to support them, and provide adequate funding.
  • Require high-quality curricula, aligned with applicable state and district standards, and monitor changes to digital content.
  • Delineate the definitions of adequate quantity of instruction to ensure subject mastery.
  • Examine the work and responsibilities of virtual school administrators and ensure that those hired for these roles are prepared with the knowledge and skills to be effective, particularly with respect to evaluating teachers and promoting best practices.

Find Virtual Schools in the U.S. 2023, by Alex Molnar, Gary Miron, Shelby Hagle, Charisse Gulosino, Bryan Mann, Luis Huerta, Jennifer King Rice, Amanda Glover, and Kayla Bill, 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, sponsors research, produces policy briefs, and publishes expert third-party reviews of think tank reports. NEPC publications are written in accessible language and are intended for a broad audience that includes academic experts, policymakers, the media, and the general public. Our mission is to provide high-quality information in support of democratic deliberation about education policy. We are guided by the belief that the democratic governance of public education is strengthened when policies are based on sound evidence and support a multiracial society that is inclusive, kind, and just. Visit us at: