Wednesday, February 24, 2016

Which Virtual School Model Should Virginia Pursue

Two highly controversial public education bills, HB8 and HB329, appear to be headed for a floor vote in the Senate in the days ahead.  Here is an overview of HB8.

HB8:  the Virtual School Bill

HB8 is a very problematic virtual school bill which would open Virginia to corporate virtual providers.  It sets up a virtual school board and a statewide virtual school.  When established in other states, such schools have been plagued by low graduation rates, poor academic performance, and high dropout rates.  Though an identical bill passed last session, it was amended by adding a reenactment clause requiring the bill to be taken up again this session before it goes into effect.

The bill has been before the General Assembly for several sessions, and it originated in a time of optimism regarding the promise of virtual education.  Indeed, a view of the value of the stock of Herndon-based K-12, Inc., a major corporate provider of virtual education, shows what “Mr. Market” thinks of the concept.  The high for the stock was $39.74 in April of 2011.  It is currently trading at $10 a share.

Virtual education has not lived up to its promise, and research regarding student achievement of online schools is disappointing.  In October 2015, Mathematica Policy Research, the Center on Reinventing Public Education, and the Center on Education Outcomes at Stanford University released a study showing that “students of online charter schools had significantly weaker academic performance in math and reading, compared with their counterparts in conventional schools.”

The September JLARC report on Efficiency and Effectiveness of K-12 Spending asserted that, “Because there is limited research on the effectiveness and cost of online learning programs in Virginia, the state should use a data-driven, incremental approach to expanding access to fully online programs.”

This is just what we are doing now.  VDOE is piloting an online high school program.  Virtual Virginia enrollment continues to grow, and many local school divisions, by virtue of individual and collective efforts, are expanding virtual offerings to students.  This “incremental approach” is happening in the absence of HB8, which begs the necessity of the bill.

From an educational perspective, virtual education is one tool in the teacher’s tool box.  The learning style of the student determines which tools you use.  Traditionally, the student, the teacher, and the guidance counselor work together to determine the courses students take.  We know that self-motivated students, students with strong time-management skills, and students with the ability to set personal goals are the most successful online students.  The parents, teacher, and guidance counselor now serve as the gatekeepers to help students develop the best schedule of courses for the individual student.  Parents, guidance counselors, and principals play this appropriate role in the Virtual Virginia model and VEA urges expansion of Virtual Virginia as a better option than HB8.

The all-or-nothing approach to virtual schools reflected in HB8 ignores the importance of the jobs our public schools do to work with each student to determine the best course of educational progress.

Another major flaw with HB8 is the funding mechanism.  The bill calls for “the average state share of the Standards of Quality per pupil” plus federal funds to be sent to the virtual school by the Department of Education.  This figure in not related to any assessment of the cost of providing a virtual program; it is based the cost of providing the state share of support for a traditional “bricks-and-mortar” school.

If there ever was a bill that requires a careful examination of the Fiscal Impact Statement, this is it.  Here are key excerpts from the FSI:
“    "The total potential cost implications of this legislation are uncertain….”

“The bill is unclear where students enrolled in VVS will take the Standards of Learning (SOL) assessments. Since the students will not be enrolled in the school division of residence, there may be complications in determining suitable testing locations. Addressing this issue may result in additional costs.” 

There are several Constitutional  questions.  Lines 294-296 read, “The Board and the School shall be designated as a local educational agency (LEA), but the School shall not constitute a school division.”

Article XIII, Section 2 of the Constitution reads, “The General Assembly shall determine the manner in which funds are to be provided for the cost of maintaining an educational program meeting the prescribed standards of quality, and shall provide for the apportionment of the cost of such program between the Commonwealth and the local units of government comprising such school divisions.”

Article X, Section 7-A of the Constitution reads “Lottery proceeds shall be appropriated from the Fund to the Commonwealth's counties, cities and towns, and the school divisions thereof, to be expended for the purposes of public education.”

The Board of the Virginia Virtual School is neither a local unit or government nor a county, city, town or school division.

Virtual Virginia provides a superior and more cost effective option for expanding virtual learning opportunities for Virginia’s students.

The VEA urges opposition to HB8.  This bill next goes to the Senate Committee on Education and Health where it will be heard tomorrow morning.  If your Senator is on the committee, please call urging opposition.  Click here to see committee members and here for Senator's contact information. .