Oklahoma Introduces More Virtual Charter Schools, Raises Concerns About Potential Overcrowding

Ok last time Zari Bigelowthought about enrolling her son in virtual charter schools, only two were available.

More than a decade later, Zari’s son Ashton, 18, is on the verge of graduating from one of those virtual schools after completing his entire K-12 education in that setting.

Bigelow shared that Oklahoma Virtual Charter Academy was the perfect fit for her son, although they briefly tried Epic Charter School, which didn’t suit him as well.

“Had it not been for other options,” Bigelow remarked, “Ashton might not have achieved the success he has today.”

Bigelow is pleased to observe the increasing number of virtual charter schools in Oklahoma, providing parents with more educational choices.

Currently, seven virtual charter schools are functioning in the state, with an eighth slated to open later this year.

As the count of virtual schools rises and more apply for authorization, state officials are starting to question the necessity of additional niche schools in the state.

Chairperson of the Oklahoma Statewide Virtual Charter School Board, Robert Franklin, emphasized the importance of avoiding a potential “saturation point” with the increasing number of schools.

The board recently declined two new school applications due to concerns about their operational and financial plans during a meeting on March 11.

Franklin expressed uncertainty regarding the saturation point but believes it could be identified when virtual enrollment hits a natural limit and students choose schools based on marketing rather than quality.

Concerns were raised by Rep. Mark McBride about the academic performance of virtual charter schools, given that their scores in state tests were below the districtwide average.

McBride suggested that academic performance improvements should be prioritized before considering the establishment of more virtual schools.

Despite these concerns, advocates for school choice argue against limiting the availability of virtual education options for families.

Barry Schmelzenbach, the executive director of the Oklahoma Public Charter School Association, stated that there might still be room for more online programs based on the demand for specialized services in some schools.

Virtual charter schools often set capacity limits but can adjust and enroll more students during the academic year.

Epic, with 27,000 students, is significantly larger than all other virtual charter schools, each enrolling fewer than 3,500 students.

About 5% of Oklahoma’s 700,000 public school students are enrolled in virtual charter schools, surpassing the national average.

In the 2021-22 school year, only 1% of U.S. public school students were enrolled in virtual schools, as per the National Center for Education Statistics.

Oklahoma ranked sixth among the 36 states with virtual schools in terms of virtual school enrollment, showcasing the state’s significant participation in virtual education.

The pandemic led to a surge in virtual school enrollment, which has since declined as students returned to physical schools.

St. Isidore of Seville Catholic Virtual School, set to open soon, aims to offer a unique religious virtual education alternative.

Despite challenges from lawsuits, St. Isidore plans to open with a target enrollment of 500 students in its first year, appealing to students seeking a different learning environment.

The Archdiocese of Oklahoma City and the Diocese of Tulsa support the addition of more virtual schools in the state to provide diverse educational options.

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