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Virtual Schools Trail Brick-and-Mortar Schools

The latest “big thing” in education is for states to pass laws creating virtual charter schools—essentially a collection of small public schools, each operating in a participant’s home—under the mantra of “increasing parents’ educational choices.”

But if Idaho’s experience is any indication of what to expect from virtual charter schools, legislators should look beyond promotional hype at hard numbers. There is trouble in virtual land.

Idaho has four public-school-at-home programs. Like all public school students, public-school-at-home students are required to take the Idaho Standards Achievement Test (ISAT).

But for the second year in a row now, public-school-at-home students underperformed on the ISAT compared to their counterparts from conventional brick-and-mortar school settings. Statistics from the Idaho Board of Education indicate that in 2005, across all grades and subjects, 79.4% of all Idaho public school students scored “proficient” or above, but only 71.2% of public-school-at-home students reached this score. An ISAT score of “proficient” is the second-highest score level out of four levels: advanced, proficient, basic, and below basic. According to Idaho’s June 2006 Consolidated State Application Accountability Workbook, a “proficient” student is generally defined as one who “demonstrates thorough knowledge and mastery of skills that allows him/her to function independently on all major concepts and skills at his/her educational level” (

The following year, although all scores rose slightly, the gap between conventional and virtual public school student scores widened. In 2006, statistics from the Idaho Board of Education indicate that 81.8% of all Idaho public school students scored “proficient” or above, but only 72.1% of public-school-at-home students did.

For both years, public-school-at-home students underperformed in every grade level tested (grades 3-8 and grade 10). Sometimes the disparity between public school and public-school-at-home scores was great. For example, in 2006, the disparity at the 3rd-grade level was 85.8% to 68.7%, a difference of 17 percentage points. Sometimes the disparity was small. In 2005, the disparity at the 5th-grade level was only 78.8% to 75.7%. But at no grade level did public-school-at-home students exceed or even equal the scores of brick-and-mortar school students.

These numbers should flash yellow warning lights at lawmakers eager to jump into the latest educational “big thing.”

On the other hand, multiple studies show that homeschoolers tend to outperform others. For example, Dr. Lawrence Rudner’s 1999 study of over 20,000 homeschooled students showed that by the 2nd grade, homeschoolers scored one full grade level ahead of their public and private school counterparts. By the 5th grade, they scored nearly two grade levels ahead. By the 7th, they scored three grade levels ahead and by the 9th grade they scored an astonishing four grade levels ahead of others.

No government program is better than the “mom and dad” program—where loving parents have full control and responsibility for their own child's education.

To access the official statistics referred to in this article, or to view tables compiled by Home School Legal Defense Association containing figures derived from these statistics, visit Read more about charter schools in Christopher Klicka’s May/June 2004 Court Report article, “WIVA: A Trojan Horse.”

— by Scott A. Woodruff