Government Attacks K-12 Public Education in Virginia – Chapter 2: The Regulatory State

James Lane, Superintendent of Public Instruction under Ralph Northam

by James C. Sherlock

The Virginia Department of Education (VDOE) both runs its own virtual school and regulates that school’s competitors.

The Virginia way.

Mark Zuckerberg can only dream.

Virginia’s privately run, state-funded, multidivision online providers (MOPs) constitute the major competitors to VDOE’s own Virtual Virginia, its state-run virtual school.

Virginia law positions MOPs as a publicly funded option for parents.

Putting on its regulatory hat, VDOE is poised to ask the Board of Education to drive the MOPs out of the publicly funded market with regulations that significantly impact their business models and curtail parents’ incentives to register with them.

Pretty much of a two-for-one if you hate the thoughts of both:

  • public education funds going to efficient, nationally recognized private providers who educate hundreds of thousands of American children every year under this model; and
  • parental choice in education.

We know who we mean.

It appears this attempt will fail because of the results of the fall elections, but they may still be trying to slip it through.

The Superintendent of Public Instruction in September 2021 convened one of his famous advisory panels stocked with VDOE employees and allies to consider new regulations for virtual K-12 education.

Unsurprisingly, the executive director of Virtual Virginia was there. Equally unsurprising, no representative of Virtual Virginia’s main MOP competitor was in the room.

The Virtual Learning Advisory Committee (VLAC) was given a presentation by VDOE that recommended regulations for Virtual Virginia‘s competitors that will cause them to withdraw.

I should say competitor.

Virginia Virtual Academy (VAVA), a full-time public virtual school offered by multiple school divisions and run by Herndon-based Stride/K12, thoroughly dominates full-time MOP instruction in Virginia. Until this school year and the 2021 Richmond Public Schools (RPS) contract affair (see previous columns in this series), VAVA had far more full-time students than Virtual Virginia (VVA). (See post-script for the story of the name game.)

You will note from the presentation linked above that no educators from Stride or Virtual Virginia Academy were invited to the regulatory party thrown by VDOE in September of 2021, despite the fact Stride is the largest MOP in the state and serves thousands of students and teachers in Virginia. And MOPs are never mentioned.

You will also note from the presentation that Virginia Virtual Academy‘s educational program, the MOP model driven by state law, could be significantly and negatively impacted if the regulations discussed at the meeting linked above are implemented.

The presentation included provisions that both defined virtual schools and programs without including or even mentioning the MOPs and foreclosed on their education model that parents have found so attractive.

First, Virtual Learning Definitions:

Virtual Program – Organizations that work directly with students and deliver virtual learning services, but are not “schools.” Virtual programs in Virginia include Virtual Virginia and other school division initiatives.

Virtual School – Organizations that work directly with students and deliver virtual learning services as a separate school within a division or region.

(Bolding by the author)

Then the coup-de-gras:

The responsible school division is required to provide services and counseling for special populations, students with disabilities, English Learners, gifted students, minority students, and/or economically disadvantaged students, in the virtual learning setting as in a brick and mortar setting.

And later:

Policies and procedures unique to virtual learning shall include, but are limited to the following:

  • Procedures and policies for application and acceptance;
  • Student and Parent/Guardian Orientation materials;
  • Support for 504, IEP, EL, and other student services (School Counselors, Librarians, ITRT et. al.);
  • Technology Support policies;
    Support for Gifted and Talented services;

(Bolding by the author)

Those services are already required of the public schools in support of Virtual Virginia. That has been true for years. There is even a school counselors’ handbook published by Virtual Virginia with all of the information above in it — and more. The handbook was published well before this conference. There is no new state regulation required to specify these rules.

No other conclusion is available but that the regulations under discussion are meant as an attack on the MOP business model in an attempt to return control of MOP students to the brick-and-mortar schools and clear the market of MOPs for VDOE’s Virtual Virginia. There is also no doubt that the current Board of Education will approve them if it can.

The local schools are not responsible to provide those educational services when a MOP provides the education in Virginia. In fact, that is the core of their objection to the MOPs other than the way the money is handled (next Chapter).

In the MOP model in Virginia, all of that support listed above as well as testing and everything else is provided directly by the MOP. The kids never set foot in the local school.

That in fact constitutes one of the MOPs major efficiencies when computing the relative costs to taxpayers of Virginia’s state/local school model vs the MOP model.

That model happens to be what attracts many parents.

Those parents do not want their children dependent on the local school. That is the very reason many seek full-time virtual education for their kids. A state-funded MOP is currently the only option to the state-run Virtual Virginia for parents who cannot afford private school.

In other states, online providers successfully offer a model of services to school divisions that matches that of VDOE’s Virtual Virginia model. Or rather vice versa.

Most MOPs did not pursue that approach here specifically to stay out of VDOE’s way. VDOE’s school did not offer full-time instruction for years after the MOPs started in Virginia and Stride’s Virginia Virtual Academy captured that segment of the market.

The joke, it turns out, is on Stride and the other MOPs.

The VDOE regulatory blade is poised to drop starting with the Board of Education meeting in March. The new Virtual Learning Advisory Committee (VLAC) has promised (threatened?) to meet twice a year going forward.

I fully expect Governor Youngkin, his new Superintendent of Public Instruction and the new Attorney General will quash this nonsense before it ever makes it to the Northam-appointed Board of Education, much less to the Virginia’s Administrative Code.

That is why I left this information out of both the Prologue and Chapter 1 of this series. I will not bring it up again.

But I thought the public should know what was in store until the election. It shows intent.

(Post-script. Drafting on the national market leader’s established naming conventions, VDOE had the General Assembly rename its school Virtual Virginia in 2011 after Stride/K12s MOP Virginia Virtual Academy emerged here. (State) Virtual Academy is a trade name under which Stride operates its state-specific virtual public schools across America in partnership with school districts and nonprofit charter schools. (Coincidentally.)