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.”