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Ariz., Mich. Governors Act on Virtual Ed. Bills

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Two governors decided the fate of virtual schools bills Tuesday, in one case reinforcing the popularity of the emerging brand of education, but failing to address accountability concerns in the other.

In Arizona, Gov. Janice K. Brewer, a Republican, vetoed a bill that would have overhauled online education in the state. The bill would have created a clearinghouse for online courses and allowed students in grades 7-12 to take up to two approved online courses, reports The Arizona Republic, one of several news outlets to publish lengthy, negative articles on virtual schools in recent months. The bill would have increased funding for online schools that provide courses that prove student proficiency, but also defer payment to those schools until students proved mastery of those courses' content. Schools that serve only full-time online students (presumably this would include certain operations managed by K12 Inc. and Connections Academy, the two largest online education providers), would have been exempted, The Arizona Republic reported.

Brewer said in a statement she was "concerned" by giving the state the ability to approve online courses. She also questioned whether the education department could implement the funding measures.

In Michigan, Gov. Rick Snyder, a Republican, signed a bill that removes an enrollment and schools cap for virtual education. The previous cap of two cyber charter schools—the K12 Inc.-operated Michigan Virtual Charter Academy and the Michigan Virtual School, operated by the private, nonprofit Michigan Virtual University—expands to 10 by 2014 and 15 after that date, the Detroit Free-Press reports. The maximum of 1,000 enrolled students for each school will be lifted to as many as 10,000 in three years. Overall, no more than 2 percent of the state's students can be enrolled in online schools.

Both of the bills in Arizona and Michigan were sponsored by Republicans.

My colleague Katie Ash over at Digital Education highlights a new report on virtual education from the National School Boards Association's Center for Public Education. The report offers a useful taxonomy for online learning and offers recommendations for school board member members considering virtual schools.

Those recommendations are in line with a lot of what we typically hear about online education: that, despite its growth (250,000 students enrolled full-time, up 50,000 from last year) and the options it offers students, funding for virtual schools from jurisdiction-to-jurisdiction is inconsistent and there's a lack of reliable information about its effectiveness. While the Center for Public Education is in favor of virtual schools overall, it recommends school leaders be more vigilant about vetting its options, a co-author of the report told Katie.

Michigan's bill faced opposition, with some lawmakers raising some of the same concerns that the Center for Public Education report suggested. It could also prove difficult to enforce a cap on enrollment because online students tend to sign up and leave at an unpredictable rate. Gov. Snyder said the cap would be strictly enforced.

Jeff Kwitowski, a spokesman for K12 Inc., said the Michigan bill simply evened the playing field for online charter schools; online courses offered traditionally through school districts—how most virtual schooling is administered in the state—don't face similar restrictions. K12 Inc. and Connections Academy are among the providers of those online courses, as well.

"The undercurrent of that debate was about expanding options and freedom for parents to choose. It was not about the model," said Kwitowski. (He said he is not as familiar with the Arizona bill.)

Either way, the Michigan bill seems like a clear endorsement of the online schools model and for school choice.

Gov. Brewer's decision in Arizona isn't as clear. Regardless of the state education department's capabilities, there are few who would argue against assigning an agency to vet online courses. And a provision that allows more funding to go online schools with courses that improve proficiency, but delays much of that funding until students prove mastery of those courses, seems to address the accountability concerns while not being unfair to online school operators. Brewer's comments suggest she doesn't think the state's infrastructure, or budget, is capable of rolling out such initiatives.

Michael Horn, Executive Director of the education practice for the nonprofit advocacy organization Innosight Institute, supported part of Brewer's decision, writing that the clearinghouse measure would have placed a textbook-adoption-type framework on virtual learning, which needs to be more customized.

"The whole point of online learning is to blow past the notion of one-size-fits-none courses and allow for a variety of approaches to serve different student needs," Horn wrote on his blog.

But he also noted that outcome-based incentives for online learning providers, coupled with a strong assessment environment, would go a long way to ensuring accountability for the medium.

Brewer's office and Arizona's education department didn't respond to requests for comment.

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