VDOE Foray into Full-Time Virtual Education During COVID — Well Intentioned Sabotage?

by James C. Sherlock

Governor Youngkin called out remote learning as a culprit in the dreadful SOL results released this summer. He had a point.

He did not note that the remote learning in question was actively led, not just overseen, by the Virginia Department of Education (VDOE) he inherited.

Let’s call that VDOE program well-intentioned. Because we have no evidence otherwise.

But there is ample evidence that VDOE’s sudden foray into full-time virtual education during COVID was an abject failure. It also exceeded the authority granted Virtual Virginia under the law establishing that organization  It was funded in a budget amendment.

In exceeding its statutory mission, VDOE pre-empted from providing that service companies with 20 years of highly successful experience in that work who were already licensed by VDOE as public school virtual education providers here.

And had performed well for more than a decade in Virginia. Under VDOE oversight.

Let’s call it well-intentioned sabotage of the education of many Virginia children.

VDOE needs, as anticipated in existing law, to contract its internally-run Virtual Virginia operation to one or more of the major companies already licensed and performing successfully in Virginia and nationwide in those roles .

This is not Monday morning quarterbacking.

I investigated and reported on this mess in great detail in a series of columns in early January. Search Bacon’s Rebellion at left for Virtual Virginia and you will find most of them.

Demand. Why, pre-COVID, would parents choose a private virtual education for their kids rather than send them to a brick-and-mortar school for direct instruction?

They make that choice for the same two basic reasons that parents send their kids to private schools:

  1. They find the local school a bad match in some important respect for the needs of their children;
  2. The parents consider the option better than the local public school; because available  virtual ed providers have sharpened their skills and long thrived in the competitive world of FTVK12 virtual education. 

The demonstrated demand in Virginia, pre-COVID, for publicly-funded full-time virtual K-12 (FTVK12) education was about 9,000 kids. In the 2021-22 school year, it had climbed to about 17,000 kids.

That brought VDOE into the market as a new provider.

The state-licensed, privately-run public education option. Virginia law positions multi-division online providers (MOPs), commercial companies, non-profit and school board entries, as a publicly funded option for parents. MOPs must contract with local school divisions, after which other divisions have access to those contracts up to the calculated (complex to explain) capacity of the contracting school division.

They get no local government money, just the state share for each student. These are parental options. They do not need approval of their local school divisions to participate.

Another Virginia law gives VDOE oversight:

In developing the criteria for approval … the Superintendent of Public Instruction shall (i) require multidivision online providers to be accredited by a national, regional, or state accreditation program approved by the Board; (ii) require such courses or programs, pupil performance standards, and curriculum to meet or exceed any applicable Standards of Learning and Standards of Accreditation; (iii) require any educational objectives and assessments used to measure pupil progress toward achievement of the school’s pupil performance standards to be in accordance with the Board’s Standards of Accreditation and all applicable state and federal laws; (iv) require such courses or programs to maintain minimum staffing requirements appropriate for virtual school programs; and (v) publish the criteria for approval of multidivision online providers on its website, including any applicable deadlines, fees, and guidelines.

Virginia’s privately run MOPs have operated successfully under those laws since 2011.

Virginia Virtual Academy (VAVA), a full-time public virtual school offered by multiple school divisions and run by Herndon-based Stride/K12, thoroughly dominated the full-time multi-division online provider (MOP) market in Virginia over the first decade.

The state option. VDOE-run Virtual Virginia is established as a statewide electronic classroom, not a school.

The services of this program shall be limited to educational purposes. Educational purposes shall include, but not be limited to, instruction in subject areas that are not available in all schools and in-service training for instructional, administrative and support personnel.

It had provided individual courses in short supply in some divisions for several years. Courses like Mandarin.

It did not commence FTVK12 instruction until 2020. It went from a few students in a pilot in 2020-21 to 12,000 students in 2021-22. What could go wrong?

It does not attempt to satisfy parents dissatisfied with local public schools. It will take only kids registered with their local public schools and recommended by those schools. It deals with the schools only, not with parents.

The VDOE school, dependent as it is on the brick-and mortar school services, can be impacted by health and weather interruptions as much as the schools themselves. With private FTK12 providers, those same school services are fully virtual from day one, and not subject to those interruptions.

Until school year 2020-21, VDOE’s Virtual Virginia (VVA) had no full-time students. That year they launched a pilot program in the middle of COVID and declared it a success.

In the summer of 2021, they moved to phase II.

Artificial suppression of supply of the privately-run option. The Northam Administration hated 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.

Having decided to jump in to a new market with no experience in FTVK12 education in the middle of COVID, VDOE put on its regulatory hat to give itself a head start.

The Virtual Learning Advisory Committee (VLAC) which consists of “one superintendent or his designee from each of the eight superintendent’s regions, the Superintendent of Public Instruction or his designee, and such other members as the Department deems appropriate, not to exceed three additional members” was given a presentation by VDOE staff.

In that presentation VDOE recommended the Board of Education drive the MOPs out of the publicly funded market with regulations that significantly impact their business models and curtailed parents’ incentives to register with them.

Two new Draft Recommendations for Virtual Education Regulations in that presentation:

  1. 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.
  2. …materials used in courses are in accessible digital formats for use by assistive technology devices or programs and that content is Sharable Content Object Reference.

Of course, the MOPs provided all of the services required by federal and state regulations under oversight of VDOE. But they were completely independent of the school divisions at the time of the proposed rule change number 1. It is what attracted many parents to them.

As for the second rule, the dominant MOP  run by Stride/K12 used a different digital format. It dealt directly with parents and students, not schools. There were rules proposed to link the MOPs operationally to the school divisions.

Fortunately, those proposed revisions were not to reach the Board of Education until this year.

Not coincidentally, in the 2021-22 school year, the parents of more than 4,000 kids were driven away from the school of their choice by the combined, simultaneous actions of the Governor and his appointees; the budget/finance committees of the General Assembly; and Richmond Public Schools (RPS).

In the view of the Northam Administration government, parents did not deserve a private choice when a public one was made available. It is generally considered a mortal sin in those circles to give public money to a privately-run public school, even when that school is regulated by VDOE.

Bottom line. Virtual Virginia’s mission has been expanded on the VDOE website, but not in the law. I recommend it return to its authorized functions.

I recommend that the Youngkin administration ask the General Assembly to disestablish Virtual Virginia as a component of VDOE. All of the missions and functions of that organization should be awarded competitively to a contractor.

Existing law already anticipates “the contractor that manages Virtual Virginia.”  But the department has none.

That will permit VDOE to exercise its oversight function unburdened of conflicting responsibilities and serve to improve the professionalism of the services provided.

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6 responses to “VDOE Foray into Full-Time Virtual Education During COVID — Well Intentioned Sabotage?”

  1. Kathleen Smith Avatar
    Kathleen Smith

    You got this one absolutely on target. Virtual Education Providers with wider and better services as well as accreditation from an outside firm that understands virtual education were pushed out. Virtual education is difficult to do and do well. What divisions had during the pandemic was not virtual education, it was pitiful pedagogy – period. I keep thinking about the K-2 student during the pandemic. What do you think they mastered? Very little. Oh my gosh.

  2. LarrytheG Avatar

    Sounds like something Youngkin could change fairly quickly.

    Also – my understanding is that kids who are suspended/expelled have access to virtual to gain credits.

    Is that through Virtual Virginia or is that something done differently? Perhaps Kathleen knows.

    1. James C. Sherlock Avatar
      James C. Sherlock

      He has to get the GA money committees to sign off.

    2. Kathleen Smith Avatar
      Kathleen Smith

      The school division may or may not provide Virtual education for students on long term suspension. Virtual Virginia may be the avenue, again left up to the school division. The SOQ for that student goes to Virtual Virginia. So, if the MOP is cheaper, the school division could use the MOP. In divisions that have local ability to pay indexes that are high (low income), MOPs may be the better choice. It is advantageous for the division to convince home schooled parents to use the system’s virtual MOP provider. The system got 5,000 or so to have the kid to enroll, and pays the MOP 3,000. This is an example only.

      The MOP must be accredited by an outside accreditor, Virtual Virginia does not.

      1. LarrytheG Avatar

        Thank You Kathleen! Informative!

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