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Virginia Gov. Seeks to Require All Schools to Offer Full-Time Online Education

Terry-Mcauliffe-blog.jpgVirginia Gov. Terry McAuliffe has proposed that all K-12 schools in the state offer students the option of a full-time virtual education.

If the plan is approved, Virginia would join Florida as the only states in the country with such a mandate, said John Watson, the CEO of the Evergreen Education Group, a consultancy that supports online education. Students in more than two-dozen other states have access to a full-time virtual program, but their districts are not required by law to offer such an option.

"One approach is not clearly better than another, although there is a fear that when you mandate that all districts offer an online school, there will be a race to the bottom as some seek the lowest-cost alternative," Watson said.

Virginia education officials say Gov. McAuliffe's proposal is designed to expand online options for students in the state, particularly those in rural areas. The plan calls for the creation of regional boards, comprised of local school board members, with the authority to offer their own virtual education programs or contract with private providers, other school districts, or other public entities who already offer such programs.

Building on existing options

Since 2002, the state department of education has run its own online program, called Virtual Virginia. It currently serves 200 students in a full-time pilot program and enrolls 12,551 students from across the state in individual online courses.

In addition, K12 Inc., the country's largest private operator of full-time online schools, which is headquartered in Herndon, Va., has a contract with three Virginia school districts to run the Virginia Virtual Academy, a statewide K-8 online school.  And the state education department has approved an additional 20 public districts and private companies to operate as "multidivision online providers," eligible to offer online courses to students statewide.

But a continued push for more online options in Virginia has run into some resistance.

Last April, Gov. McAuliffe vetoed a bill that would have created a new statewide full-time virtual school overseen by a newly created state board. Teacher unions and public-education advocates opposed the bill because it would have directed funding away from traditional public schools, and McAuliffe cited concerns about moving the responsibility for oversight away from local school systems. 

In the wake of the veto, a working group on virtual education was convened. The new proposal is the result of that group's efforts. Districts would have the option of contracting with existing entities, including the state-run Virtual Virginia program, to fulfill the new mandate.

"Control remains local, but there would be expanded access," said Holly Coy, a state deputy education secretary, in an interview.

Questions about performance and accountability

Over the past 18 months, full-time online charter schools have come under increased scrutiny from researchers, advocates, and journalists.

An Education Week investigation of the cyber charter industry, for example, documented widespread evidence of poor performance and questionable management practices throughout the sector.

Despite such troubles, states and districts have increasingly moved to create their own full-time online options. Not much systematic research of these schools' effectiveness—or even enrollment—is currently available.

According to Watson of Evergreen Education, about 350,000 students in more than 25 states are currently enrolled in full-time statewide online schools (including both charters and district- and state-run programs.) An unknown number of additional students are enrolled in full-time online programs offered locally by their district or other education agency.

"There's enough evidence that the schools work when they're well-managed that it makes sense for opportunities to be expanded," Watson said. "But it also makes sense for that to be done thoughtfully, so as to ensure that there are good accountability measures in place."

That could prove tricky when adding a new mandate and a new layer of regional oversight onto Virginia's already-messy virtual schooling landscape.

The details of McAuliffe's proposal still need to be fleshed out—and to survive the state's legislative process.

But Coy, the state deputy education secretary, said the new proposal would address such concerns in part by ensuring that students enrolled in full-time virtual programs would still have to take state tests, and their scores would count towards their home school systems.

"The idea is that even though they would be a full-time virtual student, they would enroll in their local public school and maintain a connection to those schools," she said. "We think that's part of accountability."

The devil, said Watson, is invariably in the details. If only a handful of students in a given district enroll in a full-time online program, will their home districts have enough incentive to feel responsible for their performance? Will those districts be required to report separately on the performance of their online students? With a multitude of providers, presumably using a multitude of technology platforms, will it be possible for state regulators and researchers to take a meaningful statewide look at how full-time online students are doing?

"Generally speaking, the idea that Virginia is joining other states in creating more opportunities for students around digital learning is a good thing," he said.

"Whether this particular approach is good or bad probably remains to be seen."

Photo: Virginia Gov. Terry McAuliffe addresses the media during a news conference last month in Richmond. -- Steve Helber/AP


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