Terrence Wilson, J.D. • IDRA Newsletter • November-December 2020 •

Education leaders across the U.S. South are making tough decisions about how to adapt local educational settings to meet the needs of students in the safest way possible during the COVID-19 pandemic. Unfortunately, some policymakers redirected investments toward privately-operated schools that receive public funds, including charter schools, that have a lower level of accountability than traditional public schools.

Congress allocated $4.4 billion of the $13.5 billion Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief (ESSER) Fund created by the Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security (CARES) Act to states across the U.S. South. Charter schools were eligible to receive these ESSER funds.

But, unlike traditional public schools, charter schools also could receive forgivable payroll protection loans from the federal government while receiving state public funding from local taxpayers. This means they were eligible for significantly more relief funding than traditional public schools.

According to a report from the Network for Public Education, charter schools in the South received – in addition to CARES Act funds – $495.5 million to $590 million from the Small Business Association (SBA) Payroll Protection Program (2020). Similarly, a North Carolina Policy Watch report found that at least 50 North Carolina charter schools received a total sum between $21.1 million and $53.6 million from the Paycheck Protection Program (Childress, 2020).

These investments are reflective of the larger trend that shows that around 30% of the COVID-19 relief funds are committed or have been disbursed to private and charter schools that only serve about 15% of the total student population (Committee for a Responsible Federal Budget, 2020).

Given this level of investment, education leaders must ensure that funds spent to support charter schools will actually lead to educational success for students in the current pandemic environment. Specifically, education leaders should be wary of further investment in the virtual programs at charter schools that have been advertised as better than virtual programs through public schools during the pandemic.

Public schools serving the vast majority of students should be the first place that education leaders look to invest to serve students in a post-COVID-19 environment.

Charter school enrollment grew during the pandemic, particularly in virtual charters. For example, K12, the country’s largest operator of virtual schools, saw enrollment grow by almost 50,000 students from the previous year, and Connections Academy reports that applications rose 61% over the same time period (Barnum, 2020).

In Oklahoma, enrollment increased 77% in virtual charter schools (Eger, 2020). Florida’s virtual school reported an increase of over 60% for the 2020 fall semester, and enrollment in virtual charters increased in Connecticut, Ohio and Wisconsin as well (Lieberman, 2020).

In the past, many state education leaders have been more cautious about expanding such virtual programs at charter schools. For example, the North Carolina Department of Education rejected a proposal this fall to allow two charter virtual schools to add up to 3,800 additional students this year. North Carolina leaders point to poor performance of virtual charter schools across the state, including the fact that they have received “D” grades from the state and their students have not met academic growth targets since opening. (Hui, 2020)

This trend reflects findings from a study that examined the performance of online charters throughout the country with data from Arkansas, Florida, Georgia, Louisiana, Texas and Washington, D.C. (Center for Research on Education Outcomes, 2015). The study found that, compared to their matched counterparts in traditional public schools, online charter students had much weaker growth overall in reading and math. The pattern of weaker growth remained consistent across racial-ethnic subpopulations and students in poverty. Only Georgia showed a positive impact of online education.

Another study analyzing Ohio data found that, controlling for demographics and prior achievement, online virtual charter school students performed worse than students who attend brick-and-mortar district schools (Ahn, 2016).

The authors of these studies indicate that the student populations who attend virtual charter schools may have particular challenges that have led them to seek an alternative to their traditional public school setting. It is vital that the virtual charters that serve them have accountability systems in place to ensure these schools meet students’ needs responsibly.

Given the performance of charter school education pre-pandemic, particularly virtual charters, education leaders should exercise prudence and caution before making additional investments into virtual charter schools as a tool to serve students in a post-COVID-19 environment.

Recommendations for Transparency and Efficiency

To increase accountability, education leaders across the South may consider the recommendations offered by IDRA and 15 other education policy organizations aimed at increasing transparency and efficiency in both traditional and virtual charter schools. These recommendations include:

  • informing the public about charter school expansion;
  • increasing opportunities for public input into the charter application and amendment process, encouraging agencies to create and manage a standard application for charter schools;
  • providing all students equal access to enroll in charters;
  • considering the impact of new charter schools on local school districts and neighborhood schools before any new charter schools are approved;
  • disclosing charter school financial dealings to the public;
  • helping parents make informed enrollment choices; and
  • paying charters the same per-student funding as the traditional public school districts in which they are located (IDRA, 2019).

Public schools serving the vast majority of students should be the first place that education leaders look to invest to meet the needs of students in a post-COVID-19 environment. Additional investment in specialized charter options should not be made without additional accountability to ensure student success. With sufficient accountability, education leaders can ensure that the limited funds available during the COVID-19 pandemic and beyond flow to schools that are accountable, effective and inclusive of the needs of all students.


Ahn, J. (2016). Enrollment and Achievement in Ohio’s Virtual Charter Schools. Washington, D.C.: Thomas B. Fordham Institute.

Barnum, M. (August 7, 2020). Virtual charter schools see spike in interest as families grapple with the pandemic’s disruption. Chalkbeat.

Center for Research on Education Outcomes. (2015). Online Charter School Study. Stanford, Calif.: Stanford University.

Childress, G. (July 24, 2020). Controversy follows receipt of Paycheck Protection Program funds by public charter schools. NCPolicy Watch.

Committee for a Responsible Federal Budget. (September 1, 2020). How Much COVID Relief Have Public and Private Schools Received? The Bottom Line.

Eger, A. (August 12, 2020). Enrollment already up 77% across Oklahoma’s six virtual charter schools amid COVID-19 pandemic. Tulsa World.

Hui, T.K. (2020, August 14). NC Says no to expanding virtual charter schools as COVID-19 increases demand. The News & Observer.

IDRA. (February 1, 2019). Increase the Transparency and Efficiency of Charter Schools in Texas, statement. San Antonio: IDRA.

Lieberman, M. (2020, September 3). COVID-19 Fuels Big Enrollment Increases in Virtual Schools. Education Week.

NCSL. (November 23, 2020). CARES Act Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief Tracker. National Conference of State Legislatures.

Network for Public Education. (July 29, 2020). Charter Schools Take Between $1-2 Billion in PPP Covid Funds. Network for Public Education.

U.S. Department of Education, Office of Elementary and Secondary Education. (2020). Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief Fund: Frequently Asked Questions about the Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief Fund (ESSER Fund).

Terrence Wilson, J.D., is IDRA’s regional policy and community engagement director. Comments and questions may be directed to him via email at terrence.wilson@idra.org.

[©2020, IDRA. This article originally appeared in the November-December 2020 IDRA Newsletter by the Intercultural Development Research Association. Permission to reproduce this article is granted provided the article is reprinted in its entirety and proper credit is given to IDRA and the author.]