The COVID-19 pandemic has put virtual schooling at the forefront of policy concerns, as millions of children worldwide shift to virtual schooling with hopes of “slowing the spread”. Given the emergency shift to online education coupled with the large increase in demand for virtual education over the last decade it is imperative to explore the impacts of virtual education on student outcomes. This paper estimates the causal effect of full-time virtual school attendance on student outcomes with important implications for school choice, online education, and education policy. Despite the increasing demand for K-12 virtual schools over the past decade little is known about the impact of full-time virtual schools on students’ cognitive and behavioral outcomes. The existing evidence on the impact of online education on students’ outcomes is mixed. I use a longitudinal data set composed of individual-level information on all public-school students and teachers throughout Georgia from 2007 to 2016 to investigate how attending virtual schools influences student outcomes. I implement a variety of econometric specifications to account for the issue of potential self-selection into full-time virtual schools. I find that attending a virtual school leads to a reduction of 0.1 to 0.4 standard deviations in English Language Arts, Mathematics, Science, and Social Studies achievement test scores for students in elementary and middle school. I also find that ever attending a virtual school is associated with a 10-percentage point reduction in the probability of ever graduating from high school. This is early evidence that full-time virtual schools as a type of school choice could be harmful to students’ learning and future economic opportunities, as well as a sub-optimal use of taxpayer money.
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