by James C. Sherlock
If parents asked their local schools for a full-time virtual K-12 (FTVK12) option for this school year, they were presented with only the VDOE option, Virtual Virginia, unless their district runs such a program itself, as a couple of them do.
Virtual Virginia is, thus, nearly the only virtual education option offered through the public schools.
That option is heavily advertised to teachers and administrators using VDOE’s online seminar convening clout. No doubt there was some credit offered for watching.
It also is an experiment at the vastly increased scale — a 1,400% increase in its registrations this year — an experiment with children’s educations. Especially since we have no idea of the quality of that education.
No SOL scores have ever been published for Virtual Virginia students. In contrast, we can and have derived them from state records for MOP students. The MOP student SOL scores actually improved during COVID.
I have a few issues with this particular government experiment.
Virtual Virginia is heavily advertised to teachers and administrators using VDOE’s online seminar convening clout. This one is an hour long and had more than a thousand Virginia public school teachers mustered for its presentation. I suspect there was some professional development credit issued for watching it.
Parents, on the other hand, had to go online on their own to find out about and register for the privately-run, publicly-funded options.
I suppose that counts as one hand tied behind their backs.
Politics. Opponents of the private option never tried to repeal the Virginia laws that offer the publicly-funded, privately-run options. They never had the votes in a closely divided state Senate.
The General Assembly finance and appropriations committee was a different story. Democrats there dominate by large numbers and voted to massively expand the school run by the state government. The General Assembly education committees were never asked to weigh in.
Opponents have moved quickly towards their goal of shutting off the private option by a combination of:
- a series of massive increases in direct budget funding for the VDOE online school to increase its capacity for full-time students and lower the direct financial costs of those students to the school districts. Opponents used budget language, not changes to existing laws, to expand the stated mission of the VDOE school to include full-time education; and
- the simultaneous action of Richmond Public Schools to cancel its contract with the privately-run provider for this school year.
The RPS cancellation made the private option functionally impossible to implement for the parents of 4,000 kids this year by cutting VDOE-defined “capacity” of the private provider by that many kids.
The result has directly and identifiably impacted the figures.
Virtual Virginia’s students, costs and self-assessed success. VDOE-run school FTVK12 student populations over the past three years are:
It is safe to call 2021-22 a leap of faith. Virtual Virginia increased its student load almost 1,400 percent this school year. I think I mentioned that VDOE has never published the SOL scores of Virtual Virginia students. I just mentioned it again.
That constitutes an unfounded presumption of quality in pursuit of expansion of an unproven program. The only other state with a similar system, Georgia, tried such an expansion, failed and returned to its former model.
VDOE gubernatorial appointees were already assuming success in November of 2021, three months in, when they requested even more funding for additional expansion in the next school year.
Virtual Virginia has no oversight, so its success is whatever it says it is. No word on whether the school districts and parents consider this experiment successful.
Privately-run, publicly-funded schools. FTVK12 student populations:
- 2019-20 – 2,279
- 2020-21 – 6,683 (6,484 of them in Virginia Virtual Academy (VAVA) run by Stride/K12)
- 2021-22 – not yet published. VAVA alone had over 5,740 applications for the 21-22 school year. But VAVA enrollment was closed during the traditionally peak enrollment season June 15-August 1st once the reduced cap was reached. This followed the Richmond City Public Schools’ failure to renew the VAVA contract. Using prior years’ enrollment data, Virginia Virtual Academy estimates approximately 4,000 potential applicants could not be accommodated for SY 21-22 enrollment. VAVA is currently educating 4,478 students.
Let’s assume for the purpose of this discussion that the 4,000 kids whose parents’ first choice was VAVA, upon rejection from that program registered them at the local school, and they were accepted into the VDOE school.
If that is true, then the actual parental demand was 8,000+ for the private option for which parents signed up directly and about the same number for the VDOE option offered through the public schools.
The private option was unacceptable to Governor Northam’s appointees in the Department of Education, so they (and, separately, RPS) moved to “fix” what they saw as a problem.
Parents be damned.
The budget increase requested for Virtual Virginia going forward.
I published earlier a description of the funding smokescreen that supports Virtual Virginia. In the Executive Budget in front of the General Assembly is a line item under Department of Education, Central Office Operations  titled
Increase in nongeneral fund appropriation supporting Virtual Virginia
Increases the nongeneral fund appropriation supporting Virtual Virginia to align the appropriation with expected revenues and expenditures for fee-based programs.
The request from VDOE asked the Governor for an additional $58,699,587 annually for additional expansion of its full-time program in FY 2023 (July 1 of this calendar year) and FY 2024. The Executive Budget in front of the General Assembly today wound up spreading that increase over two years.
The decision package sent to the Governor’s office makes for interesting reading. You will particularly like the “Alternatives considered” line:
The alternative is to keep the Virtual Virginia offerings unchanged and curtailed based upon the current appropriated spending cap.
Really. That is what it says. “Curtailed.” The decision package bases the need for the additional funding on:
school divisions’ significant increase in interest in utilizing Virtual Virginia’s fee-based programs.
I notice a couple of omissions.
- There is no detail offered to validate the “significant increase in interest” above current enrollment. There is no acknowledgement that any growth in demand can be met with more experienced and competitive privately run options regulated by VDOE.
- It does not mention that Virtual Virginia shifts the costs of every aspect of student support but classroom instruction to the home districts where the students live.
The authors of the decision package may charitably be credited with the assumption that the Governor and the General Assembly already knew that information.
An assumption of knowledge of this level of detail by members is not supported by my own experience.
What could go wrong? Virtual Virginia is offering a massively increased program for providing an educational experience that is
- unproven at the current scale;
- funded by multiple funding streams; and
- places extensive demands upon public schools with which Virtual Virginia has not previously worked in full-time education.
There is no apparent process under which the success of that experiment will be assessed by anyone but VDOE.
Does anyone object to Virginia kids being used as guinea pigs in their educations? Does anyone expect an unbiased accounting of how the experiment worked?
I expect that the citizens of Virginia do.