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Fixing Virtual School Governance

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virtual-school-150Most parents of children with disabilities don’t worry about the nuances of school governance for full-time virtual schools in Virginia.

They just want their child to receive the services he or she needs.

The Virginia Virtual Academy provides full-time online instruction to nearly 350 children throughout Virginia, including students with disabilities. But Virginia law requires school divisions to educate “the children with disabilities residing within its jurisdiction.” When those words were written, it was never imagined that a student attending school could reside anywhere other than a school operated by his local school system.

The result: In Virginia, special education services can’t be provided by the virtual school that is judged on its ability to educate students and wants to provide the services – they must be provided by the home school division that usually doesn’t want the responsibility. Finding their needs unmet, half of these most vulnerable students have now dropped out of the online program.

It’s just one example of state law not keeping pace with a 21st century world in which students aren’t limited to their neighborhood school, but quite literally are “students without borders.” The fact that the law hasn’t kept up with technology has badly hurt the growth of full-time virtual schools.

Thankfully, Delegate Richard “Dickie” Bell (R-Staunton) proposed legislation (HB 1086) that would correct the special education conundrum, and it seems to be progressing through the General Assembly.

But it only scratches the surface of virtual school governance issues.

When it was sponsored by Carroll County Public Schools, more than 450 K-8 students attended the Virginia Virtual Academy. But when the superintendent left, the system dropped sponsorship of the digital school, leaving those students – 13 percent of whom were students with disabilities, 10 percent of whom were from active duty military families, and 10 percent of whom were medically unable to be in a traditional school – out in the cold and scrambling for options.

Two other full-time virtual schools picked up part of the slack: Patrick County (300 K-5 students), and King and Queen County (120 K-2 students). But because those schools did not include grades 6-8, nearly 300 students were left without online educational opportunities.

And they aren’t alone. When it closed, more than 5,000 students had expressed an interest in full-time online digital education at the Carroll County school, and more than 1500 students were on a waiting list. Demand for full-time virtual learning far outpaces the current supply.

In a perfect world, without a physical plant to limit its growth, a virtual school could take as many students as it wanted. But because Virginia’s arcane funding mechanism is designed for a time when students learned in a bricks and mortar building closest to where they lived (see here), school systems sponsoring virtual schools must artificially cap the number of non-residential students.

Local school divisions thus have little incentive to start a full-time virtual school even though they are the only ones empowered to do so. Worse, a change in leadership can mean an arbitrary reversal of policy and, as the Carroll County experience demonstrates, parents can find themselves scrambling at the last minute to ensure educational services for their child.

As a result, full-time virtual education exists in Virginia pretty much only on paper. More than 275,000 students in America are enrolled in full-time virtual schools, a number growing 30 percent a year – but Virginia is slipping into reverse. Thousands of Virginians are denied an opportunity they need, whether they be from military families, students on homebound instruction with medical needs, students with special education or gifted needs, or any child who would benefit from a virtual school because it would provide a better education.

Bell has an answer for this, too. Another bill (HB 324) would create a Virtual Virginia School, contracting with a variety of providers to offer full-time online state-approved courses to Virginia’s students.

Local school divisions wouldn’t have to get into the business of managing a full-time online program. But those thousands of students would be able to receive needed educational opportunities currently denied them – and wouldn’t have to worry about whether those opportunities would be capriciously pulled away without warning.

Virginia’s system of public education governed exclusively by local school systems has generally worked well since its creation, but it was designed when fax machines were “high tech.” Reforming those laws in an age of broadband, tablets, and digital learning is badly needed if K-12 education is to keep up with the world in which we live.

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