Virtual School Meanderings

September 8, 2010

A (Real) Virtual Education: More Politics Of Virtual Schooling

inacolThis message posted in one of the iNACOL forums earlier today.

Boston Globe

A (real) virtual education

Mass. should be pioneering online learning, not restricting it

By Marty Walz and Will Brownsberger

THIS WEEK marks the start of the school year. Unfortunately, Massachusetts students are returning to classrooms that haven’t changed much since their parents and grandparents attended. Meanwhile, students in other states are taking advantage of a learning opportunity that students here are denied — online education.

Massachusetts should be in the forefront of using computers and the Internet to change where, when, and how students learn. We have the expertise to lead in virtual education, but the state Board of Elementary and Secondary Education has restricted school district efforts to introduce virtual schools.

The education reform act approved by the Legislature in January makes it easy for districts to create virtual schools. Of course, we don’t envision a future in which online learning replaces brick-and-mortar public schools. Face-to-face peer contact and personal teacher mentoring will always be an important part of learning, especially at the lower grades. However, an increasing portion of learning can occur online with the support of peers and with less direct supervision by teachers. In the long run, this may be the only way to significantly expand learning time within the state’s economic constraints.

Instead of seizing the opportunity provided by the new law and supporting the expansion of virtual education, the state Board of Elementary and Secondary Education has used its regulatory authority to dramatically limit the creation of virtual schools. By definition, virtual schools are not limited by geographical boundaries. But the board’s newly approved regulations on virtual schools impose the crippling requirement that schools draw a large portion of their students from within their own district.

There is a back story. The town of Greenfield has chosen to open a virtual school that will be available to students across the state. The board apparently had a concern that the virtual school might compete for funding with other schools through the school choice mechanism. The board imposed restrictive terms that limit the statewide expansion of any district-sponsored virtual school. Greenfield is opening a virtual school this month, but on a sharply reduced scale and subject to close oversight by the commissioner of Elementary and Secondary Education.

The real problem is that the board and the commissioner have failed to lead on the issue. Massachusetts should already have statewide virtual schools. The Legislature and the town of Greenfield are working to fill the vacuum, only to see the board’s new regulations squelch innovation.

Many students need virtual options. Gifted students who are not sufficiently challenged in traditional classrooms can access more advanced courses. Students with special needs can work at their own pace. Teenagers raising children and high school students working part time or in an apprenticeship program can take classes to fit their schedule. Students at risk of dropping out can receive more individually tailored, one-on-one instruction than they would in a traditional classroom. High school dropouts who want to complete their education but not in a school with teenagers can do so online. With the flexibility and potential for tailoring lessons to fit students’ needs, virtual education can serve students who are not reaching their potential in traditional schools.

The children who attend school today are digital natives who think nothing of learning through the use of technology. As adults, we are digital immigrants who remember lessons delivered through film strips and overhead projectors. In a state where digital pioneers flourished, the educational system should catch up to the students.

Marty Walz, a state representative from Boston, is co-chair of the Education Committee. Will Brownsberger is a state representative from Belmont

This is just another example of the politics of virtual schooling.  Despite the rhetoric of these two politicians, the restrictions that have been placed on virtual schooling in Massachusetts are not uncommon compared to other states and, in fact, are quite reasonable (see Worst Online Learning Law in America? Really??).


  1. The cap in enrollments are a very common restriction across the country. The geographic restrictions are much less common.

    Currently I believe there are 27 states plus Washington DC that allow full-time online schools in some manner. Of these states:
    – Oregon has a similar geogrphic restriction (requires 50% of the students come from the local district, MA requirs 25%). However, until the past couple of years Oregon provided waives for this requirement.
    – California has a unique restriction that the schools can only serve students in contiguous counties. This has effectively resulted in schools being set up for the more heavily populated areas of the state. There is no requirement for a certain percentage of students coming from the local district.
    – Texas has a fairly complicated set of restrictions (at least in some cases), but in general the schools are able to serve most of the state, without requiring a certain percentag of students coming from the local district.

    It is certainly possible I am unaware of other states with geographic type restrictions, but to my knowledge the other states allow for open enrollment across the state. If that is the indeed the case, this means MA is only the 2nd state with such a restriction. I wouldn’t call that common.


    Comment by Matthew Wicks — September 8, 2010 @ 5:47 pm | Reply

  2. Matt, I think that you have to look at the restrictions together – as any one individually, in any state, might seem unreasonable. Most states when they begin their full-time programs generally cap the numbers of students any cyber charter school can serve and also limit the number of cyber charter schools that can operate. If you use Georgia as an example, K12, Inc. were the only ones who were given permission two or three years ago. There were four or five that applied in Georgia this past year and only two were granted permission. If you use Michigan as an example, the legislation only allows two companies to set-up shop in the state and each program is limited to 400 students. If you use Wisconsin as an example, the state has capped enrollment to 5,250 students state-wide (and there are more than a dozen full-time programs in that state).

    Now compare that to Massachusetts where every single one of the 501 school districts can create their own full-time program that can serve up to 500 students (and it may be less than 501, as I know here in Michigan we have school districts and ISDs and RESAs and a bunch of other divisions that I don’t quite understand). The reality is that not every one of the 500 districts will create a program, but any of the cyber charter school providers can come in and partner with one or more districts to set-up shop.

    The problem here is that there is a group of individuals among the cyber charter school proponents that believe that any limitations are simply unnecessary restrictions and that we should simply throw open the doors and let loose a free-for-all. When that happened in the early days in states like Ohio, Pennsylvania, and Michigan we saw widespread corruption, numerous law suits for illegal and potentially illegal activities, and a general perception that has led to Ohio and Pennsylvania earning a very negative reputation when it came to cyber charter schools and an outright ban on them in Michigan.

    Managed growth and starting small isn’t a bad thing when something is being introduced (cyber charter school or otherwise). And simply because a certain set of regulations are working in one state after X number of years of operation, it doesn’t mean that those same regulations will work in another state (and certainly not right at the beginning).

    Comment by mkbnl — September 8, 2010 @ 7:34 pm | Reply

  3. I agree with you that some level of restrictions and managed growth is reasonable, especially at start-up.

    My point was the one of the specific restrictions is not very common. Furthermore, the restriction of having as much as 25% of the student population from the local district tends to be a fairly significant deterent to operating a full-time virtual school, because it puts a large impediment into obtaining enough students for a critical mass to make the school reasonable to operate. Most virtual schools tend to accomplish this by having a large enough geographic area to draw from. While MA districts operating full time schools can still draw from the entire state, they are limited to how many out-of-district students they can enroll based on how many in-district students are interested in being part of the full-time program.

    Now one can certainly argue that this is an appropriate policy restriction as the district should be serving students its own district. That is a separate issue and doesn’t change the fact that the geographic restriction is a significant restriction in operating virtual schools.

    One other note, since the article was written by legislators that presumably were involved in the passage of the law, it also seems to me that the restrictions put in place by the state department of education are not in line with the intentions of the legislature when the law was created. Now of course the legislature is free to change the law if they feel strongly enough about these restrictions.

    Comment by Matthew Wicks — September 8, 2010 @ 7:56 pm | Reply

  4. Personally, I believe that the geographic restriction prevents what occurred here in Michigan. Back in the 1990s there was a single school district (i.e., a school district that only had a single elementary school left open) that was facing severe financial issues. Their solution was to partner with a cyber charter school provider. The superintendent at the time expected to get about 300 students or so, which was basically what they needed to make up for their budgetary shortfalls. The first year they had ten times that number register. The school was accused of stealing funding from other districts, there were issues about the quality of curriculum and delivery by this particular cyber charter school provider, and many irregularities with enrolling (and receiving funding for students) that eventually were re-enrolled in other brick-and-mortar systems but still on the online programs books. It was actually primarily the actions of this one program that caused the ban on cyber charter schools here in Michigan (that was only recently lifted).

    The geographic restriction essentially forces districts to invest in serving students who aren’t being served in their own district, as opposed to simply cherry picking students from other districts. That focus on students within their district boundaries should also help lessen the tension between the district that houses the online program and the other districts that are losing students (and funding) to them.

    And that kind of thing in practice is not all that uncommon. Here in Michigan I can think of three programs (e.g., Westwood Cyber School, St. Clair County RESA’s Virtual Learning Academy, and the Dearborn Heights Virtual Academy) that were created to primarily serve the students within the district’s (or ISD’s) boundary that weren’t being served by the traditional brick-and-mortar system.

    Comment by mkbnl — September 8, 2010 @ 8:06 pm | Reply

  5. The issue that you talk about in Michigan in the early 1990s can be handled in a variety of ways other than the geographic limitations. Requiring various quality standards is an important start and should be done regardless of other items. However, the cap of enrollments which is also in place in MA, also does a lot to address the issue.

    I am curious about the size of the three districts you mention. I would guess that they are larger districts and thus have a bigger group of students to draw from.

    Right now for a school in MA to have the maximum of 500 students, they would have to be able to attract 125 students from the district. I don’t know if Greenfield expects to get to the maximum, but I just looked them up and their current student population in the district is about 1,500 students, so 125 students represents about 8% of their current student body. I would be surprise if they would be able to get that many students from their district, but I could be wrong. I guess we will find out.

    Comment by Matthew Wicks — September 8, 2010 @ 10:56 pm | Reply

  6. The three districts in question:

    – Westwood Community School District -> a little over 2,000 (but I think the school can take in students from all of Wayne County – which I believe would be the ISD, which would mean ~250,000 students)
    * I believe they have between 500-600 students and they began in January 2009

    – Dearborn Heights School District No. 7 -> a little over 7,000
    * I believe they have about 25 students and they are beginning this September

    – St. Clair County (which I believe would be the ISD) -> ~25,000 (although you have to be able to physically attend the lab in Marysville for 5 hours per week)
    * I believe they have about 80 students and they began early in 2009

    Comment by mkbnl — September 8, 2010 @ 11:23 pm | Reply

RSS feed for comments on this post. TrackBack URI

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

Blog at

%d bloggers like this: