Background. Virtual schools—free, state-funded, credit-awarding elementary and secondary schools offering curricula and programs exclusively online—are a rapidly expanding sector of U.S. education. Some of the largest of these schools have low graduation rates and receive “failing” rankings on state accountability metrics. They nonetheless flourish and grow, seemingly immune to sanctions that would be applied to traditional schools with similar ratings.
Purpose. Taking one of the largest virtual schools in the United States, Ohio’s Electronic Classroom of Tomorrow (ECOT), as a paradigmatic case, we examine how such immunity is produced.
Findings. The ECOT case requires us to problematize standard educational categories. Unlike the schools presupposed in state accountability systems, it stretches across an evolving set of integrally connection organizations and actors that together form something that is a public school, but also a for-profit business, a political actor, and a technology infrastructure. Drawing on a set of “analytic tactics," we analyze this form as an “assemblage” composed of multiple facets or “avatars” whose relations and boundaries change over time. Some avatars can generate profits, others are nonprofit; some are political actors that can influence their regulatory environments, other are barred from political activity; one avatar is confined to Ohio, another can move across state lines. Each avatar is legible to the state in terms of a different accountability regime. The way the state “sees” and assesses the assemblage as a whole depends on which avatar it focuses upon.
Implications. The case complicates standard notions of school and accountability by pointing to the multiplicity of state accountability frames and the abilities of certain assemblage forms to influence how the state sees them. It also raises issues of how new territorial configurations of schools (their expansion to the level of the state) are linked to policy agendas in and out of education. Finally, it contributes to our understanding of policy networks by pointing to ways that assemblage forms allow entities like the one ECOT is part of to extend themselves in space and time, generate new organizational forms, and mobilize political capital.