IES Blog

Institute of Education Sciences

Virtual schools: Measuring access to elementary and secondary education in online environments

By Mark Glander

Many people are familiar with the increasing availability of online education at the postsecondary level, but did you know that the number of virtual elementary and secondary schools is also growing? Virtual schools can offer flexibility to students who may have difficulty accessing or attending traditional schools, or as an alternative to homeschooling for parents who elect not to enroll their children in traditional brick and mortar schools. As the number of schools offering virtual education increases, it is important to be able to track these schools.

To gain a better understanding of the role virtual schools play in public elementary and secondary education, NCES added a flag identifying these schools to its Common Core of Data (CCD). The CCD is an annual collection of data from all public schools, public school districts, and state education agencies in the United States. The recently released School Year 2013–14 collection includes the new virtual school flag. For this purpose, a virtual school is defined as, “A public school that offers only instruction in which students and teachers are separated by time and/or location, and interaction occurs via computers and/or telecommunications technologies. A virtual school generally does not have a physical facility that allows students to attend classes on site.”

Twenty-eight states and the District of Columbia reported having one or more virtual schools for a total of 478 virtual schools in the U.S. in 2013–14. Florida reported the most of any state with a total of 182. A new data item is often under-reported in the first year of collection; ten states and other jurisdictions did not report having any virtual schools or reported virtual schools as not applicable (California, Delaware, North Dakota, Texas, Washington, the Department of Defense Education Activity, American Samoa, Guam, Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands, and the U.S. Virgin Islands). 

All but 12 of the reported schools were “regular” schools, meaning they offered a general academic curriculum rather than one focused on special needs or vocational education. 

The CCD distinguishes several types of local education agencies, defined by their level of governance.  Almost all virtual schools were administered by regular, local school districts (350 schools). Most other virtual schools were administered by independent charter school districts (116 schools), which are districts composed exclusively of charter schools.

The two states with the largest number of students in virtual schools were Ohio (38,169) and Pennsylvania (36,596).  Idaho had the largest percentage of students in virtual schools (2.4 percent), followed by Ohio (2.2 percent), and Pennsylvania (2.1 percent).

CCD identifies four school levels:  primary, middle, high, and “other”.  “Other” includes schools that span these categories and schools with high school grades but no 12th grade. A total of 309 of the 478 virtual schools had a school level of "other".  These schools accounted for 84 percent of students in virtual schools.

To see tables summarizing the above data, please visit our web page – http://nces.ed.gov/ccd/data_tables.asp.

To learn more about the CCD, please see our latest report, or visit our web page.  You can also access CCD data files for additional information about public elementary and secondary schools.