by James A. Bacon
Step aside Bob McDonnell, you and your tax-hiking, burden-shifting transportation-funding package. Make way for Dickie Bell, R-Staunton, who has introduced what may prove to be the most audacious piece of legislation of the 2013 General Assembly session — a bill to create a state virtual school organized as a free-standing statewide school division. Among other virtues, his proposal won’t raise taxes!
Under HB 1555, the state would establish the Virginia State Virtual School “in order to provide full-time online educational programs and services to school-age persons in the Commonwealth.” The school division would be subject to the requirements of the Standards of Quality and would be required to submit an annual report to the General Assembly, although contracts with online providers would be exempt from state public procurement laws.
Any student could enroll for free in the virtual school provided that his parent “makes, in his own discretion, the determination that access to the educational services of the Virginia State Virtual School is in [his] best interest,” and provided that he completes the enrollment through “any multidivision online provider that provides online courses and virtual school programs through the Virginia State Virtual School.”
The virtual school would be funded through transfers of students’ state and local share of Standards of Quality per-pupil funding, not to exceed $6,500.
Bell, a former high school special ed teacher, has submitted several small-bore bills this year pertaining to schools and children, including deaf and hard-of-hearing children, teacher contracts and evaluation, and public school student screenings for eating disorders. But none of them touch HB1555 for their potential to shake up Virginia’s public school system.
The virtual school idea would give parents in school districts across Virginia a free alternative to their local bricks-and-mortar schools. Not only would the bill spur competition with local schools, it would create a venue for online providers to compete. A virtual school division would constitute the most radical change that Virginia’s ossified K-12 educational system has seen in decades — and predictably will inspire the ire of the usual entrenched special interests.
The online school movement has been developing quiet momentum in Virginia public schools in recent years. The Virginia Department of Education offers online Advanced Placement courses through its Virtual Virginia online program. Herndon-based K12, Inc., a provider of online educational programs, has partnered with Grayson County, Carroll County, Patrick County and Pittsylvania County to deliver online programs. Additionally, it works with two private online schools in Virginia — the Keystone School and K12 International Academy — and the George Washington University Online High School.
K12, Inc., has not gone public as a backer of Bell’s initiative but it’s hard to avoid the conclusion that the company is involved. According to the Virginia Public Access Project database, K12 has donated $136,000 in recent years to statewide and General Assembly candidates for office — $50,075 of it in the past year. The firm also has retained four lobbyists.
K12, which went public in 2007, is the nation’s largest operator of virtual public schools. Operating in 32 states and Washington, D.C., the company generated $708 million in revenue in 2012.
Appealing to home-schoolers, high achievers, strugglers, dropouts, teen parents and victims of bullying, K12 argues that many children cannot get the individually focused and flexible learning they need in a one-size-fits-all classroom. K12’s online curriculum and methodology includes “rich, challenging and engaging content,” an individualized learning plan, a learning coach (typically the parent) and daily online lessons. K12 trains its teachers to teach in an online environment and to adhere to state standards.
Not surprisingly, K12 has critics. Wrote the Washington Post in a May 2012 article: “Education activists, journalists, politicians and others have raised questions about whether such full-time virtual schools, which are clearly profitable for K12, are also good for students and fair to taxpayers.” The New York Times also blasted the company in a December 2011 piece, contending that “portrait emerges of a company that tries to squeeze profits from public school dollars by raising enrollment, increasing teacher workload and lowering standards.” The company responded that the Times piece was unfair and one-sided.
The long knives will be out for any company whose business model is as disruptive and threatening to the status quo as K12’s. There are legitimate questions to ask about the quality of online education and the accountability of the virtual school division before Virginia signs up for the program. At the same time, it would be fool-hardy to hold a Virginia virtual school to standards of perfection that all too many traditional schools fall short of themselves. Bell’s bill warrants serious discussion.
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