Updated October 22, 2018
The DLC characterizes online schools as those in which students access the large majority of their instruction via the Internet. These schools have few or no requirements for students to attend a physical location1 aside from state testing and may or may not have a physical building that students may visit.
(Note that we have a separate category for hybrid schools, which allow students to access much of their learning online but have a physical location and requirements for the times or circumstances under which students must attend those locations.)
We place online schools into one of two categories: district online schools and statewide online schools.
District online schools
Many large school districts operate online schools for their own students. These district online schools have the following attributes:
They primarily serve students who are enrolled in the district operating the school, and reside within the district's geographic boundaries.
They may or may not be recognized as a school by the National Center for Education Statistics. Some district online schools educate students who remain officially enrolled in their mainstream, brick-and-mortar school for funding and accountability purposes.
Students may move between the district online school and the mainstream school relatively easily, because both schools are operated under the same district. A significant number of online students attend these schools for less than a full school year by design, for example if they are recovering from illness or injury.
District online schools may play several roles supporting schools and students in the district. They may be the long-term, full-time school for some students; a short-term, full-time school for other students; and a supplemental online course provider for other students. In some cases, the online school will have responsibility for student advancement, while in other instances the student's mainstream school will retain student progression responsibility.
In some states, many district online schools were created because the district sought to keep students from moving to an online school outside the district. This situation is most common in Pennsylvania, and examples of such schools also exist in states with extensive statewide online schools such as Arizona, Colorado, and Ohio.
Statewide online schools
We characterize statewide online schools as entities that are listed in the National Center for Education Statistics Common Core of Data, which enroll students from across a state,2 in California, individual schools are limited to operating in contiguous counties, but we still categorize these California schools as statewide for simplicity and are responsible for student progression through grade levels and/or graduation.
Most statewide online schools share the following attributes.
Organization type: Most of these schools are charter schools. Some are run by school districts or intermediate agencies such as BOCES, and are not charter schools, but in practice these district-run schools look very much like charter schools, although with governance being provided via district mechanisms instead of by a charter school authorizer under state charter school laws.
Affiliation: The schools in this category that serve more than half of all online students are operated by education service providers (ESPs); the two largest ESPs are K12 Inc. and Connections Academy (which is part of Pearson Education). ESPs typically contract to provide courses, software, teacher professional development, and other key management and logistical support. Other schools operate independently or are affiliated with a school district, BOCES, or similar agency.
Geographic reach: Most of these schools attract students from across the entire state in order to achieve scale; therefore, most of these schools are in states that allow students to enroll across district lines and have funding follow the student. California is an exception in that it allows online schools to enroll students from within a region made up of contiguous counties. In California, K12 Inc. and Connections operate networks of affiliated schools that reach most students in the state.
Grade levels: All grade levels are offered in online schools collectively, although individual schools may be limited to older or younger students.
Instructional strategies: Younger students in these schools work with adult mentors (often, but not always, parents) who work with the students at home. The schools often send physical materials to students, including paper workbooks and science materials, to complement online offerings. Online teachers communicate with both students and parents via text chat, email, discussion boards, online video and audio, and phone calls. Older students tend to work more directly with online teachers with less direct involvement from parents. They also tend to spend more time online as fewer of their resources are offline.
Funding: Funding usually is provided via state public education funds that follow the student.
Size: Most statewide online schools have enrollments of a few hundred to several thousand students (FTE), and most of these schools enroll primarily full-time students. Some enroll students part-time as well, particularly in states that support part-time enrollment.
Accountability for student achievement: Schools in this category are accountable in the same ways as all other public schools and/or charter schools in the states in which they operate. They are responsible for facilitating state assessments for all students, regardless of geographic location.
Online school and student numbers and trends
The DLC is creating a policy brief examining the states that allow statewide online schools, the numbers of students enrolled in these schools, and other data. We will post the brief here when it is done. If you’d like to be notified when the online schools policy brief is posted, please sign up for our mailing list.