Remote learning is hard to love. The nation’s forced experiment in online education the past few years has been a disaster for kids. Educators and parents alike have come to view virtual learning as a necessary evil at best, an ad hoc response to a national crisis. In a survey by McKinsey & Company, 60 percent of teachers rated the effectiveness of remote learning between one and three out of ten. Many attribute remote learning to the catastrophic decline in academic outcomes and an alarming spike in mental health problems, with plummeting test scores and rising rates of depression and anxiety among students.
It’s also assumed to widen achievement gaps. The challenges of remote instruction “apply in affluent, English-speaking, two-parent households,” my colleague Rick Hess recently wrote. “Things get tougher still for single parents, families in tight quarters, or parents trying to communicate about all this in a second tongue.” Online charter schools in particular had a poor reputation even before Covid, associated in many minds with low-rigor credit recovery, poor performance, and mediocre graduation rates. A recent Brookings study of virtual charter schools and online learning during Covid was particularly grim, concluding that “the impact of attending a virtual charter on student achievement is uniformly and profoundly negative.”
Given that bleak and unpromising landscape, an outlier may be emerging: The online version of Great Hearts Academies is proving to be both an academic standout and popular with families. That has officials at the Arizona-based charter school network quietly thinking about launching a low-cost, online, private-school model to bring classical education to anyone who wants it at a price point below—even far below—other options, including Catholic schools. It’s one of several initiatives Great Hearts is weighing to expand its offerings.
Great Hearts is the largest operator of classical charter schools in the U.S. with thirty-three schools serving 22,000 students in Arizona and Texas. They’re high-performing; its high school students earn an average SAT score of 1237. Demand is also high, with over 14,000 students on waiting lists last year. Great Hearts Online (GHO), a tuition-free charter school, launched in Texas a little over a year ago, serving 500 students in grades K–6, more than half of whom were new to the network. An additional 600 charter school students enrolled online in Arizona for the current school year.
Early returns are promising: Seventy-nine percent of GHO students are above the 50th percentile in reading; 72 percent in math. Both of those figures slightly beat the average across the network’s traditional brick-and-mortar schools. Parent satisfaction will always be the most salient metric, and here GHO shines. An internal survey shows 85 percent of parents are more satisfied with Great Hearts Online than with their previous “brick-and-mortar” schools, a number that swells to 92 percent among families who came to the online classical school from traditional public school districts, according to Kurtis Indorf, who leads Great Hearts Nova, an “R & D” division of the fifteen-year-old charter school network.
Indorf acknowledges that GHO is not a perfect fit for every family. “I think our ideal market is almost like homeschool light,” he tells me. “The kind of parents who might think ‘I like homeschooling. I want to be with my family. But the daily pressure of planning and delivering a high-quality education that is safe and aligned to my values is too much to do.’” Then there’s the appeal of classical education, which is experiencing a boom in popularity, with demand far outstripping supply. Great Hearts Nova is looking to satisfy some of that demand and grow its footprint by franchising micro-schools, and through “asynchronous course development,” which would allow GH remote students, homeschoolers, and even some traditional public schools to tap into Great Hearts’s course content. The most intriguing concept emerging from the Nova skunkworks is the possibility of launching a low-cost, online private school, which would conceivably make a classical education available to any family with Wi-Fi.
The 2021 EdChoice “Schooling in America Survey” shows demand for private education far exceeding supply. While barely 10 percent of American children attend private schools, a whopping 40 percent of parents say they would prefer private school for their children. There’s no mystery to solve here. Availability, price, and transportation present hurdles too high for most families to clear comfortably. A trusted school “brand” at a modest price with zero transportation costs theoretically wipes away those issues in a single stroke for a significant number of middle-class Americans—a role Great Hearts seems particularly well-suited to play.
Great Hearts Online plans to enroll 1,620 students across Texas and Arizona in the coming school year. For the 2023–24 academic year, Indorf says, GHO hopes to grow enrollment in the charters and launch a private school across multiple states with an enrollment target of 2,700 students. “By the 2025–26 academic year, we plan on serving over 7,000 students in public charter models as well as a national private model in multiple states,” he tells me.
Great Hearts seems particularly well-suited for this strategy. Where most large charter networks have tended to concentrate in low-income urban neighborhoods, Great Hearts’s classical curriculum and pedagogy have proven particularly popular with middle-class suburban families. Their Texas charter briefly functioned as a private online school before it was authorized by the state, and over 100 families proved willing to pay tuition. Teachers seem no less eager. Great Hearts received 1,400 applications to fill forty online teaching slots. Even though it operates today in just two states, its staff and faculty log on from over two dozen different states.
To be sure, remote learning is not everyone’s cup of tea. But according to a study by the RAND Corporation, the demand for virtual schools is growing. About one in five district administrators have either already started an online school or are planning to start one at the end of the pandemic. Other educators and families fall somewhere in the middle: While they prefer in-person instruction, they hope that schools retain the best that online learning has to offer, even as a supplemental tool.
Could GHO become a breakthrough private school model that’s affordable and attractive to middle-income families? It’s hard to compete with free, but “free” and “excellent” aren’t always available in the same school. It doesn’t take a great deal of foresight or imagination to envision a scenario in which Great Hearts could create something truly new: a high-quality, low-cost private school that taps into Americans’ rising discontent with traditional public schools and that offers a curriculum grounded in the timeless appeal of “the true, the good, and the beautiful.”
I wouldn’t bet against it.