DeVos overstates grad rates for IDVA, other virtual schools

As the controversial Betsy DeVos’ nomination heads to a final vote, the Idaho Virtual Academy has found itself playing a small role in the bitter debate.

In response to questions from Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash., President Trump’s choice for education secretary inflated graduation numbers for virtual charter schools, including IDVA.

For example, DeVos listed IDVA’s graduation rate as 90 percent.

But that number doesn’t come close to the state’s own numbers, including the 2015-16 graduation rates released less than a week ago.

In 2015-16, IDVA had a graduation rate of 35.5 percent, compared to a statewide rate of 79.5 percent. And the latest IDVA numbers actually marked an improvement from 2014-15, when the state’s largest charter school had a graduation rate of 26.9 percent.

Why the discrepancy between DeVos’ numbers and the state’s numbers?

Here’s how Benjamin Herold of Education Week explained it last week. DeVos chose numbers collected by K12 Inc., the for-profit vendor that provides curriculum for IDVA and other virtual schools.

The K12 numbers track only students who stayed in virtual charter schools continuously from ninth through 12th grade. That calculation excludes transfers and dropouts, Herold reported, and is not the same approach used by states and the federal government to measure graduation rates.

The difference in approach is important.

Virtual charter schools such as IDVA tend to serve large numbers of at-risk and transfer students. Often, these students have struggled in traditional schools, missed extended class time due to illness or have been victims of bullying.

As IDVA head of school Kelly Edginton said in January 2016, more than a third of the school’s 10th graders show up behind on credits, and those percentages are even higher for 11th and 12th graders.

Even a conservative advocate distanced himself from DeVos’ response.

“I think this was a mistake,” Michael Petrilli, president of the Thomas B. Fordham Institute, told National Public Radio. “It’s impossible to argue that most online charter schools are high-performing because most are performing abysmally.”

DeVos, a Michigan billionaire, has been a longtime and vocal advocate of charter schools and vouchers — to the dismay of critics, who question DeVos’ commitment to public education. Her nomination has proven to be one of Trump’s most controversial Cabinet picks.

A final vote on DeVos’ nomination is expected Tuesday. Many observers expect the Senate to deadlock on a 50-50 vote, with Vice President Mike Pence casting the tie-breaking vote in DeVos’ favor.

Read more: Idaho Sen. Mike Crapo says he will support DeVos.