Virtually Worlds Apart

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Mirror-mirror on the wall, which states are pushing innovation most of all? Not Massachusetts. A number of other states are at this point moving faster than Massachusetts on key educational innovations.

The good news for Massachusetts is that last January the state passed a law to double the number of charter schools. Further good news is that students in our charters consistently do better than their district peers; in other states that level of consistency is not always the rule.

The bad news for Massachusetts is that states like Florida, Colorado, Michigan, Arizona and so many others are pushing forward with digital learning much faster than the Bay State is. In fact, the education bureaucracy is putting some of the strictest limits in the country on expanding digital learning. That may seem odd in a state better known than most for developing and leveraging technology.

In last year’s education reform law, several legislative leaders wanted to leverage technology more effectively after seeing the results in other states such as Florida, where students are getting more time on task and access to AP and other specialized courses digitally. It’s hard not to be impressed by what Florida has accomplished in this field, with funds being expended only when a student successfully completes a specific course.

After the passage of the 2010 ed reform law, the state Department of Education, bowing to pressure from school superintendents and other groups who feared competition on yet another front, decided to promulgate restrictive regulations for digital schools. These include limits on the number of students who can participate in a virtual school (500) and geographical limitations on who can access the programming (25+ percent have to come from within the district; no more than 2 percent of kids can come from any sending district).

These are the polar opposite of what digital learning experts suggest as effective regulations. The Digital Learning Council recommends in fact that states draft regulations with these principles in mind:

  • State has an open, transparent, expeditious approval process for digital learning providers.
  • State provides students with access to multiple approved providers including public, private and nonprofit.
  • States treat all approved education providers- public, chartered and private – equally.
  • State provides all students with access to all approved providers.
  • State has no administrative requirements that would unnecessarily limit participation of high quality providers (e.g. office location).
  • State provides easy-to-understand information about digital learning, including programs, content, courses, tutors, and other digital resources, to students.

Rep. Marty Walz, who last year chaired the Committee on Education and was one of the principal writers of the 2010 law, has taken her frustration with the Department of Education public. Last September, she and Rep. Will Brownsberger made their case in the Boston Globe, noting

Instead of seizing the opportunity provided by the new law and supporting the expansion of virtual education, the state Board of Elementary and Secondary Education has used its regulatory authority to dramatically limit the creation of virtual schools. By definition, virtual learning is not defined by geography — think of how you use the internet and the sources you may look at to get information and even training. But the board’s newly approved regulations on virtual schools impose the crippling requirement that schools draw a large portion of their students from within their own district.

The State House News’ Matt Murphy reported on Tuesday’s Board of Education meeting that Walz was not happy with where the Board is taking this issue, calling their restrictions “arbitrary.” These decisions include denying an application from an existing provider in Greenfield to expand its virtual offerings to high school students, and the denial of a separate application in Hadley. (State House News subscription required.)

“What the board is trying to do is keep us in the dark ages,” Walz told the News Service after testifying before the Committee on Education on behalf of two bills she has filed to expand access to virtual schools.

Walz has filed two bills on virtual learning, one that would prohibit the Board of Ed from restricting online learning; the other would allow for the establishment of virtual charter schools via the usual charter process.

“I see no reason why school districts should be precluded from operating their own virtual schools and give these students and families a choice,” Walz said. “These are arbitrary limits on the number of students who can benefit from this type of education.”

The state Education Commissioner Mitch Chester has argued that he is merely looking for an approval process for virtual schools and virtual course providers that is accountable to the public. So he is arguing that decisions on virtual schools be run through the charter school process. The problem with that argument is, of course, that is what the whole effort to develop regulations on virtual schools, concluded last summer with a thud, was supposed to do.

In the meantime we are falling behind other states quickly. Dozens of states have moved ahead with broad efforts at expanding learning time and access to high-quality course offerings through digital learning. Meanwhile, Massachusetts has a single school and a Department of Education that has wasted 18 months dithering and, in fact, choosing most every opportunity to choose regulatory options that are the polar opposite of what experts recommend in order to ensure accountability to the public and to ensure high-quality options for students.

Crossposted at’s Rock the Schoolhouse blog. Follow me on twitter at @jimstergios, or visit Pioneer’s website.