Fighting the Long Battle for a Virginia Virtual School

Online teacher: Beam me up, Scotty.

by James A. Bacon

Del. Dickie Bell, R-Staunton, knows he faces an up-hill climb creating a public online alternative to local school districts in Virginia, but he’s not giving up. The challenges are many. The educational establishment doesn’t like any idea that would turn schooling over to private-sector contractors. The governor’s office has not signed onto it. And, oh, incidentally, some say that the latest incarnation of his proposal, HB 1555, is unconstitutional. That’s OK. He’ll keep on tinkering with the legislation until he gets it right.

His first effort to expand virtual education opportunities did pass a couple of years ago, Bell says, but it was a program in name only – it had no funding. His goal was to get it on the books with the promise of finding money later. Thirteen vendors signed up to deliver online courses but financial support never materialized.

So, he went back to the drawing board. HB 1555, submitted for the current General Assembly session, would set up a virtual school division to deliver online courses. Anyone in the state could enroll, and the school would be funded through transfers of students’ state and local share of Standards of Quality per-pupil funding, up to $6,500. But it turns out, Bell says, that creating a separate school division might be unconstitutional. Rather than fight that battle, he decided to restructure the proposal again.

As a Staunton resident, Bell was familiar with the Virginia School of the Deaf and Blind (VSDB) in his home town. VSDB is a public school that accepts deaf and blind children from all across the state. When a child leaves his or her home district, their school funding goes with them – just like his earlier proposal. The key difference is that his online program would be a state agency with its own board of visitors, analogous to VSDB, instead of a school division. When I talked to Bell Friday, he was working to amend his bill along those lines.

The former special ed school teacher sees online learning as a game changer for public education in Virginia, especially in small towns and rural counties like his Shenandoah Valley district where school often cannot bring enough kids under a single roof to justify advanced math and language classes. Highland Couny, in his district, has 200 students – in the entire county. “We don’t challenge the gifted kids enough. … I want the kids to have the same classes and opportunities as schools from other parts of the state.”

But the goal is bigger than providing advanced placement classes, which the state’s existing Virtual Virginia online program already does. What Bell really wants is to inject some competition into the public school system. “Generally speaking, folks want more school choice. And this is another choice. I’m an advocate of school choice. Folks don’t always feel like they’re getting the best education for their kids where they are.”

Under his proposal, says Bell, online students could sign up for an online program with parental permission. While instruction would be contracted to private-sector vendors, students still would be subject to Standards of Learning testing. “This would have the same educational requirements of a brick-and-mortar school. … The standards will be high. I’m not interested in anything that lowers the bar for public education.”

Herndon-based K12, Inc., which has contracted with several rural public school systems, pitches its online program as appealing to home-schoolers, high achievers, strugglers, dropouts, teen parents and victims of bullying – anyone who cannot get the individually focused and flexible learning they need in a one-size-fits-all classroom.

I called the Virginia Education Association for a comment on Bell’s bill but did not get a response. However, Bell says the reception by the public education lobby has not been favorable. “The educational establishment always rises up in opposition if there’s any threat to their money,” he says. “That’s been the struggle.”

Public school educators also are unlikely to be happy about inviting private-sector competition through the back door of online learning. The Old Dominion has been hostile to charter schools, vouchers, teacher accountability, Standards of Learning or anything else that would disrupt the status quo. Bell was disappointed that Governor Bob McDonnell didn’t include the virtual school idea in his education reform package, but he says the idea is getting increased attention. Once he addresses the constitutional questions, he says, “I think we can get some dialogue.”

4 Responses to Fighting the Long Battle for a Virginia Virtual School

  1. It may make sense for Highland County, but the proposal is for a state-wide program. The issue I have is what this does to local control of the schools:
    Who decides on the curriculum of a state-wide program?
    Does each locality have the right to decide whether to participate?
    Does each locality have the right to control marketing of the program in its locality?
    Who will get the credit for success or failure – the state or local government?

  2. It makes sense for every kid in the state who wants to take a course that his school does not offer.

    It also makes perfect sense for kids who are home-bound or cannot physically attend public school.

    I don’t think it has anything at all to do with the locality as long as the course meets the same standards and the success will belong to whoever provides the successful course offering.

    Here’s the problem – in my view – schools are very expensive when they provide more than the core academic courses. It then becomes a situation of how much local taxpayers want to pay extra to provide these extra courses and amenities.

    You provide Latin I … and they want Latin II. You provide Latin II and they want French I,II,III. And so you end up with the richer schools offering a wider variety of courses that poorer schools simply cannot afford to.

    This helps kids in the poorer school districts who want to pursue more than the basic courses.

    It also allows the schools in-between poor and rich to offer other courses that they cannot afford to offer.

    So I see this as a win-win-win for everyone – as long as the standards are the same no matter who the provider is.

  3. It does bother me that the anti-public school folks seem to support this and that private sector companies are drawn to it like flies to honey.

    I’m only in favor of this if everyone – all providers – have to meet the same exact standards.

    If that is the case, then I do support state SOQ funding being made available on a per student – pro-rata – basis and that pro-rata is a considerable fly in the ointment because right now school funding is either all on or all off. The home-schooled kid gets no public funding – which I would support – if that kid had to pass the same tests that public school kids had to pass.

    The big 600 lb gorilla in the room here is if we are not careful, we are going to end up with K-12 being like some fly-by-night online colleges that specialize in fleecing students with military benefits or kids getting loans.

    If we are going to do this – it cannot be turning K12 into yet another predatory business environment where private sector companies go after the money and the kid gets the shaft.

  4. the other thing we ought to be doing is use the same curriculum for online that we use in brick & mortar schools.

    If we do this – then every kid that has to miss a day or 3 days or a week of school can continue their studies – continue to learn – continue to hand in homework and continue to receive guidance and instruction appropriate to their level of learning.

    we need to slay the beasts of status-quo when they get in the way of children learning.

    it’s nothing short of outrageous to have school boards and school systems involved in trying to kill this legislation.

    OTOH – it’s also outrageous that some think that turning this over carte-blanch to for-profit or even non-profit interests who do not want to be held to a standard – curriculum and testing.

    I consider both sides to be NOT in the best interests of kids and their right to a quality education.

    swift kicks in the rump – all around here.. and I include those who want to convert public schools to publically-funded de-facto private schools.

    a POX on all of them!

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