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Existing regulatory protocol is insufficient for full-time online education

BOSTON, MA – Massachusetts is well behind the curve when it comes to full-time online learning, but pending state legislation could change that, according to a new study published by Pioneer Institute, Regulating Virtual Schools: A New Policy Challenge.

Regulating Virtual Schools

“Applying the usual practices on attendance, enrollment and funding to full-time online schools is like trying to fit a square peg into a round hole,” said Pioneer Director of the Center for School Reform Jamie Gass. “Virtual schools need their own regulatory protocol.”

Thirty states and the District of Columbia currently have virtual schools, in which students work from home and participate in courses using a blend of hands-on books and projects, plus online assignments. Teachers and students communicate via e-mail, discussion boards, web conferencing, telephone and Skype, among other media.

Currently, the Massachusetts Virtual Academy at Greenfield (MVA), which opened in 2010, is the commonwealth’s only full-time virtual school. But House Bill 1960, “An Act Establishing Commonwealth Virtual Schools,” which was approved by the Legislature’s Joint Committee on Education in January, could change that if it is enacted.

The bill would:

Allow for up to 10 virtual schools, which would be allowed to draw students from across Massachusetts, to be phased in over several years;

Cap the number of students attending virtual schools at 2 percent of the commonwealth’s public school population, or about 19,000 students;

Funding would follow the student. The state Department of Elementary and Secondary Education would set a per-pupil tuition rate, not to exceed 75 percent of the commonwealth’s foundation budget. Foundation, which is arrived at by formula, determines the minimal amount needed to provide an adequate education; and

Virtual school teachers would either be required to be licensed in Massachusetts or another state, or be a faculty member at an accredited higher education institution.

The report, authored by former Providence Journal staff writer William Donovan, makes following  recommendations:

Requiring virtual schools to generate and report performance data to help address concerns of parents deciding whether to enroll their children;

New tools that are specific to virtual schools should be devised to analyze their
performance; and

Set performance-based caps that allow would allow high-performing schools to grow and require underperforming schools to close.

Virtual schools are generally less expensive than traditional schools, though the data vary on how much less expensive. Policy makers should explore student savings accounts, which would allow students to apply the difference between the cost of attending their virtual school and a traditional school to college or other education-related expenses.

Physical disabilities, medical and social issues, and living in isolated rural areas are among the reasons students might choose to attend virtual schools. Nationally, virtual school enrollment is rising sharply. In Massachusetts, MVA currently has 485 students, up from 300 last year.

On Thursday, March 1, Pioneer Institute, Florida Virtual School, Democrats for Education Reform, and Harvard’s Program on Education Policy and Governance will hold a virtual schools event featuring introductory remarks from New Mexico Secretary of Education Hanna Skandera and a keynote address by Susan Patrick, president and CEO of the International Association for K-12 Online Learning.

A panel discussion will follow, moderated by Heather Staker, Senior Education Research Fellow, Innosight Institute. Panelists include Julie Young, President and CEO, Florida Virtual School; Representative Martha Walz, Massachusetts House of Representatives; Will Fitzhugh, Founder and Editor, The Concord Review; and Michael Sentance, former New England Administrator, U.S. Department of Education. The event is scheduled for 3:00-5:15 pm at the Omni Parker House Hotel in Boston.

Pioneer Institute has worked to advance digital learning as part of a menu of school choice options that should be accessible to all schoolchildren. In December, Pioneer held an event, “Virtual Schools, Actual Learning: Digital Education in America,” co-sponsored by Democrats for Education Reform and
Harvard University’s Program on Education Policy and Governance. The forum featured Julie Young head of the Florida Virtual School and former Massachusetts Governor Jane Swift, and marked the release of the Pioneer study, Virtual Schools, Actual Learning: Online Education Becomes a Valid Option, by William Donovan.

The December 2011 report reviewed the status and prospects for expansion of Massachusetts’ experiment with digital learning and recommended that state officials devise a policy for how statewide virtual schools should be managed. In November 2011, Pioneer honored Sal Khan, founder of the popular online learning platform, Khan Academy, at its annual Lovett C. Peters Lecture.