by James C. Sherlock
Recommendations. Where to begin?
First things first. Day one, as Governor-elect Youngkin likes to say…
Stop the continued expansion of Virtual Virginia. We know hardly anything about it, and what we do know is not encouraging.
- We don’t have Virtual Virginia kids’ SOL scores;
- We do have parental survey data that have been less than enthusiastic about Virtual Virginia;
- We don’t have demographic data for either its student body or its teachers; and
- We don’t know its full financial costs.
Additional expansion is out of the question until we can fully define those parameters.
To stop the additional expansion, eliminate the line item in the Executive Budget that allows further expansion of Virtual Virginia from fees paid by the school divisions.
That will freeze the Virtual Virginia student population and its staffing at current levels until we get a handle on it. It will also leave up to $59 million in schools’ budgets over the next two years that they will not have to send to VDOE.
Crucially, it will also give time to make the more fundamental changes recommended below.
Longer term, there is some heavy lifting required. The reforms I recommend below, like the one above, are offered as good government initiatives that need not prove partisan.
I see at least five strategic issues with Virginia’s way of providing publicly funded virtual education.
1. Conflicts of Interests at VDOE. It is bad government for Virginia:
- to have a publicly funded school, Virtual Virginia, run by the Department of Education. That leaves Virtual Virginia with no oversight and no regulator; and
- that same Department regulates Virtual Virginia’s competitors.
For VDOE to run its own school, it has to tiptoe around Virginia law by paying one of Virginia’s smallest counties, Carroll County, to hire and provide HR services to Virtual Virginia employees. Operationally, they work for VDOE.
Virtual Virginia needs to be put at arm’s length from VDOE, as is done in every other state and the District of Columbia except Georgia.
Some states have a quasi-state virtual education operation run as a non-profit or state-chartered enterprise. Some of those, in turn, are supported by private providers.
Virginia could look at the structure used when creating the Chesapeake Hospital Authority as an example. It was created by the General Assembly as a non-state-owned public hospital in 1966. It operates as a corporation with an appointed Board, a CEO, and everything else it needs to function. It gets no state funding. It can sue and be sued, etc.
That Authority is regulated by the Virginia Department of Health like any other hospital.
2. Virginia’s various laws, regulations and funding streams create a “system” that is no system at all. No sentient human being would create what we have now. It has evolved over years without any attempt at rationalization as it developed. It is now nearly inexplicable.
Regardless of one’s political views, Virginia laws need to be rewritten to create a body of law that is internally consistent and makes sense as a whole. On the subject of publicly funded K12 virtual education, we do not have that now.
3. Costs to the taxpayers of the state-run virtual school are undefined. Virtual Virginia costs are so multifaceted and murky that they took their own Chapter in this series to partially explain.
I recommend that the Governor assign the Department of Planning and Budget to conduct forensic accounting and define Virtual Virginia’s costs before he and the General Assembly can begin the process of assessing its value.
4. Reporting is utterly inadequate. The relative quality of state-funded virtual education options are not reported in a way that enables either legislators or citizens to make side-by-side comparisons.
Virtual Virginia (VVA) does not have a School Quality Profile posted by the state. Neither do its competitors’ schools.
Virginia Virtual Academy (VAVA) operated by Stride/K-12 registered 6,673 full time Virginia students in 2020-21. It registered 97% of all full-time MOP students in that year.
Even if you add in Virtual Virginia’s 924 full time students in 2020-21, VAVA still had 85% of the total number of Virginia students enrolled in full time virtual K-12 education last year.
The 1,400% expansion of VDOE’s Virtual Virginia’s full-time student population this school year was funded by the Virginia budget. Combined with the simultaneous cancellation of Richmond Public Schools (RPS) contract with Virginia Virtual Academy, those two factors upended that market.
If the RPS contract had stayed in place, Virtual Virginia would have about 50% of the market this year based upon parental demand, showing continuing growth in its student population. But RPS cancelled the contract. VDOE’s Virtual Virginia in 2021-22 has about 70% of that market, and wants the rest.
By happenstance, the School Quality Profiles for the two Richmond Schools in which RPS before this year placed Virginia Virtual Academy kids for accounting purposes allow us to see the SOL scores for those children. Unlike RPS more broadly, the scores of that group significantly exceeded state averages. In fact, the over 6,000 Virginia Virtual Academy kids counted in those two schools’ populations significantly inflated RPS SOL scores overall.
Those same scores also indicate that in Virginia Virtual Academy learning continued to progress during COVID. But one has to dig to find that information. It is not included in formal reports.
The December 2021 Board of Education Annual Report on the Conditions and Needs of Public Schools in Virginia fails to report SOL scores and frustrates attempts to compare parent/child satisfaction between Virtual Virginia and the MOPs.
- Appendix I, Virtual Virginia Brief, fails to report Virtual Virginia SOL scores. That report details mixed reviews in 2019-20 of Virtual Virginia from parents and children. Given a choice of “highly agree, agree, disagree and strongly disagree” with a series of questions that described high quality school instruction, strongly agree responses were in the mid 40% range. In four questions stating positive things about communications and support in virtual courses by Virtual Virginia, strongly agree responses varied from 58% to 32%. 15% of parents reported that they would not enroll their child in a Virtual Virginia course again. Remember, that report assessed school year 2019-20, before this year’s 1,400% expansion of the program.
- Appendix I: Status Report Regarding Multidivision Online Learning. VDOE created a satisfaction survey for the MOPs. This report showed very high levels of parent satisfaction with MOPs. However, the questions and the answers were neither aligned with nor similarly formatted as the Q&A’s about Virtual Virginia. so it is impossible to do a side-by-side comparison.
The reports have been that way for years. The reporting that makes direct comparisons between Virtual Virginia and its MOP competitors impossible thus must be assumed to be purposeful.
I recommend that the state hire a qualified contractor, perhaps one of the Federally Funded Research and Development Centers (FFRDC) that ring the beltway in Northern Virginia to ensure impartiality, to conduct an in-depth assessment of the quality of education provided by Virtual Virginia and its MOP competitors over the past four years.
Then post School Quality Profiles for each virtual public-school option going forward. Use the same formats used for every other public school in Virginia.
5. The current contracting system supports neither parents, school divisions nor providers. Virginia law requires VDOE-certified private providers of state-funded virtual schooling to contract with enough school divisions with enough VDOE-defined “capacity” to support kids whose parents may live in any of the state’s 132 school divisions.
That single fact resulted in a sudden collapse in 2021 of the artificial “capacity” of Virginia’s leading parental choice, Virginia Virtual Academy. That in turn denied the parents of approximately 4,000 Virginia children their choice of providers this school year.
I recommend a new system that works well in both the federal and Virginia governments. This new system would spin off Virtual Virginia as a quasi-governmental entity at arm’s length from VDOE and let it compete to serve both school divisions and parents. That is exactly what Florida and others have done.
With the information from recommendations 3 and 4 above in hand, task the Department of General Services to structure and issue RFPs for two multi-award, indefinite delivery, indefinite quantity (ID/IQ) task order contracts to provide publicly funded virtual education services in Virginia.
The first contract will provide virtual education services to the school divisions – teacher training, resources, and blended learning. It can also offer remote substitute teachers, the support of school-district-run virtual learning options and anything else the school divisions may specify. This one must define what the contractor will provide and what the school divisions must provide so that total costs are measurable. The state will provide the existing and out-year funded learning management system for use by all contractors and schools under this contract.
The second will offer direct registration and full educational services for full-time and single courses to parents, as do the current MOP contracts with individual school divisions. For those contracts under current rules, providers have to find partners from among a very narrow number school districts who have the willingness, the “capacity” and the state share funding to make the program work.
Some of the same national names in virtual education, like Herndon-based Stride/K12, Pearson and Edgenuity, will submit bids for both contracts. Virtual Virginia, spun off from VDOE, could bid for one or both. The contracts will set the underlying terms and conditions for all award winners.
These contracts should be funded directly in the budget to cover demand. The Kabuki dance seeking relative funding advantages and disadvantages practiced now is not in the best interests of taxpayers.
Virginians will get the best quality at the best prices. Parental choice will be preserved. School district choices will increase. Read that again.
The multiple winners would then market their state contracts to school divisions and parents.
The resulting demand from both the parents and schools selecting among competitive offers from the contract holders will pick the ultimate winners and losers.
I honestly cannot see a partisan political issue in these recommendations. Everybody plays. Everybody wins.
- Virtual Virginia’s potential market is expanded.
- The MOPs continue to compete as now without the no-win contracting situation;
- Parents, children and the school divisions win. Parents and their children are offered well-defined options. School divisions, now out of the contracting business, choose among multiple options for their own support;
- VDOE wins. It can focus on oversight and regulation without the distractions and dancing around the law brought by running its own school.
The status quo is indefensible.
For those on the left who oppose state funding of privately-run virtual public schools as a matter of public policy, fair enough.
They can eliminate that option should they ever get the votes to do so.