States Revamping Policies on Virtual Schools
It has been an active spring when it comes to state policymaking targeting online schools.
In the wake of a Colorado audit finding insufficient oversight of the state’s online schools, for example, Democratic Gov. Bill Ritter Jr. has signed a legislative compromise that would tighten the reins with new demands and a newly created state division of online schools.
In South Carolina, Republican Gov. Mark Sanford signed a measure expanding a state-sponsored virtual pilot program into a full-fledged state online school, even as plans in Indiana to launch two new virtual schools have been shelved amid legislative wrangling over funding.
In Pennsylvania, meanwhile, a bill to change how the state’s 11 cyber charters are funded has sparked considerable debate.
And in Kansas, state officials are responding to a state report in April that found that despite rigorous policies for overseeing the state’s cyber schools, the state department of education’s actual oversight of them has been “weak.”
“A lot of states are wrestling with these issues,” noted John F. Watson, a national expert on virtual schooling and the founder of Evergreen Consulting Associates in Evergreen, Colo.
‘Cooler Heads’ in Colorado
The Colorado measure creates a new division of online learning within the state department of education to oversee virtual education. The division will certify the authorizers of online programs that serve students across district lines, with an eye towards ensuring quality.
Also, authorizers of online programs will now have to give the state annual reports on each program they oversee, with details on how the programs have met quality standards, data on students and teachers, and other information.
“We actually think Senate Bill 215 is a very good compromise,” said Jane Urschel, the associate executive director of the Colorado Association of School Boards. “We now have a law that will keep online schools out of the headlines.”
Mr. Watson added that the new law “puts Colorado right at the forefront of thoughtful responses to the challenges of developing appropriate online education policy.”
In December, a state auditor’s report in Colorado drew wide attention with its conclusion that state and local districts had given virtual schools lax oversight. ("Colo. Online Charters Need More Oversight, Auditor Says", Dec. 20, 2006.)
Afterward, some virtual school advocates said they worried that the state might seek to overregulate virtual learning and discourage its expansion. But they suggested that in the end, state lawmakers’ reaction was measured.
“Cooler heads prevailed in the state,” said Mickey Revenaugh, the vice president for state relations at Connections Academy in Baltimore, a company that provides virtual school curriculum, technology, and school management services, including for Denver Connections Academy.
She said the new law helps to ensure “you have good oversight without micromanaging. … There was a moment where it looked like it was going to be overly prescriptive.”
South Carolina’s expanded virtual school will start with high school-age students and eventually expand to cover the full K-12 spectrum.
“This bill will not only open up choices that wouldn’t normally be available to students, but it also provides an important opportunity for more students to interact via the Internet,” said Gov. Sanford.
The legislation sparked a heated debate among lawmakers on the question of access to online course offerings by students in private schools and home-schooled students, with some members seeking to charge them fees and to give enrollment priority to public school students.
In the end, no such restrictions were included in the law. However, the measure instructs the state board of education to develop guidelines and regulations on how to prioritize student eligibility and to examine the appropriateness of charging tuition and fees.
At the same time, the legislation makes explicit that virtual charter schools are permissable in South Carolina and sets parameters for how they should operate. The state has no such schools now.
In Indiana, Ball State University was getting ready to launch two new virtual charter schools next school year, which would have been the first in the state. In final wrangling by lawmakers, however, the funding was stripped from the state budget bill and Ball State officials say plans to open the schools have been scrapped for now.
Critics of the virtual schools, including the Indiana State Teachers Association, an affiliate of the National Education Association, argued that the money was needed to pay for other education priorities, such as funding for full-day kindergarten.
But virtual school advocates sharply criticized the move.
“That was a heartbreak, it really was,” said Ms. Revenaugh of Connections Academy, which was to operate one of the two new virtual charters. “Parents were on fire, they wanted this so badly.”
Funding Fight in Pa.
In Pennsylvania, state Rep. Karen Beyer, a Republican, introduced a measure earlier this year that would require the state to directly pay for cyber charters, rather than taking the per-pupil funding from district coffers.
The legislation also would set what backers of the schools consider unreasonably low limits on how much money they may receive. The schools would get between $3,000 and $5,000 per student, depending on their enrollment.
The state teachers’ union and school boards association have rallied behind the measure, arguing that the cyber schools cost less to run than brick-and-mortar schools. But cyber charter advocates say the measure as drafted would put the schools out of business.
Committee hearings on the bill in the Pennsylvania House were expected to occur this summer.
In Kansas, this spring’s report by a state legislative audit committee says the state education department often hasn’t carried out the policies it has established .
For instance, the report found that the state agency had lost track of which virtual schools were registered, had failed to conduct required on-site visits for some of the schools, and lacked reliable data to monitor the schools.
The report also raised concerns about potential risks with online schooling that it said were not being adequately addressed, such as the manipulation of enrollment data for financial gain.
The committee noted that virtual schooling is growing rapidly in the state, with the number of virtual schools and students doubling over the past two years, to 28 schools serving more than 2,000 students.
Karla S. Denny, a spokeswoman for the Kansas Department of Education, said her agency does not dispute the report’s core findings.
“A corrective action plan has been developed and will be fully implemented before school begins in August,” she said.
Vol. 26, Issue 41, Pages 18, 22Published in Print: June 13, 2007, as States Revamping Policies on Virtual Schools