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The Massachusetts Board of Elementary and Secondary Education

Virtual Schools: Report on New Legislation and Proposed Delegation of Authority to Commissioner

Members of the Board of Elementary and Secondary Education
Mitchell D. Chester, Ed.D., Commissioner
January 18, 2013

On January 2, 2013, Governor Patrick signed into law Chapter 379 of the Acts of 2012, "An Act Establishing Commonwealth Virtual Schools." (See Attachment 1 for the text, most of which is codified as G.L. c. 71, § 94.) The new law authorizes the Board of Elementary and Secondary Education (Board) to adopt regulations and, through the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education (Department), to oversee the establishment and operation of publicly funded, high quality virtual schools in the Commonwealth.

The new statute is responsive to the position the Board adopted in 2011: that there should be a stronger oversight and consumer protection role for the state than the one provided by the innovation school statute. Under the new law, approval by the Board is required to establish a virtual school serving students from more than one district. As with charter schools, the Board will make the final decision on whether to grant a certificate, based upon my recommendation.

Enactment of the law at this point, mid-way through the school year, presents us with some challenges since most of its provisions take effect immediately. This memo provides an overview of the new law and the steps we are taking to implement it.

Statutory Requirements

Key components of the law include the following:

  • Applicants approved by the Board are awarded a certificate to operate a Commonwealth of Massachusetts Virtual School (CMVS or Commonwealth virtual school) for a term of three to five years.
  • On or before October 1, the Board shall issue a request for proposals (RFP) to establish one or more CMVS.
  • The RFP shall include, but not be limited to, 39 terms and conditions that are set forth in the law and that must be addressed in each response to the RFP. The terms and conditions are incorporated into each certificate the Board grants to open a CMVS.
  • A single school district, two or more school districts, an education collaborative, an institution of higher education, a non-profit entity, two or more certified teachers, or parents are eligible to submit a proposal for a CMVS. Private and parochial schools and for-profit entities are not eligible to apply.
  • Only a single school district, two or more school districts, or an education collaborative can apply to operate a CMVS through the 2013-2019 school years.
  • The Board may grant certificates to no more than three Commonwealth virtual schools for the 2013-2016 school years.
  • No more than two percent of students enrolled in public schools statewide may be enrolled full-time in virtual schools and no more than ten Commonwealth virtual schools may operate at one time in Massachusetts.
  • A CMVS established by one or more districts or by a collaborative must enroll at least five percent of its students from the sponsoring district(s) or collaborative.
  • A school committee may vote to restrict enrollment of its students in Commonwealth virtual schools if its total virtual school enrollment exceeds one percent of the district's student population.
  • When approving proposals for virtual schools, the Board must give preference to applications that specifically address the needs of one or more of the following groups: students with physical challenges that make it difficult for them to attend school, expelled students, students who have dropped out of school, and pregnant/parenting students.
  • A Board member must be present at hearings convened to solicit public comment on pending applications for Commonwealth virtual schools.
  • The Massachusetts Virtual Academy at Greenfield (MAVA) shall be awarded a certificate to operate a CMVS upon submission of a timely application in response to the first RFP issued. MAVA's response must include the information specified in the new statute at G.L. c. 71, § 94(b). If the Board awards it a certificate, MAVA must enroll at least two percent of its students from Greenfield for the period of the initial certificate.
  • Commonwealth virtual schools shall comply with the special education law and shall hire certified (licensed) teachers.
  • Tuition for students attending a CMVS is set at the school choice tuition amount, provided that the Department may approve alternative tuition amounts within certain limits.
  • Each CMVS shall submit an annual report to the Board covering specified items.
  • Each CMVS shall obtain an annual independent audit of its finances and is subject to audit by the State Auditor.
  • The Department shall publish periodic reports on Commonwealth virtual schools covering academic performance and demographic data, and shall report to the Legislature on implementation and impact of the new law.
  • The Department shall develop and publish a list of online courses aligned with current state academic standards that school districts may use.
  • In place of the Board's Advisory Councils on Technology Education and Educational Technology, there is a new Digital Learning Advisory Council, comprised of fifteen members appointed by the Board, to advise on virtual schools and related matters.

Implementation Timeline

With respect to releasing an RFP, given enactment of the statute in January 2013, I recommend releasing the first RFP only for existing Virtual Innovation Schools to open a CMVS for the 2013-2014 school year. I anticipate releasing the first RFP in February and bringing any responses forward for a vote at the Board's meeting in May 2013. To open a CMVS for the 2014 -2015 school year, I anticipate releasing the second RFP on October 1, 2013 and bringing any responses forward for a vote at the Board's meeting in February 2014.

With respect to the Digital Learning Advisory Council, we will begin immediately to identify potential candidates. Eight of the fifteen members must come from categories specified in Section 7 of Chapter 379 of the Acts of 2012. I anticipate bringing a list of nominees for appointment to the Board for a vote in April 2013.

With respect to regulations, the Department will draft regulations this spring, soliciting the input of the Digital Learning Advisory Council and other constituencies through the summer. I anticipate bringing regulations to the Board for a vote to solicit public comment in October 2013, with a vote adopt the regulations in December 2013. The regulations would take effect no later than February 2014, when the Board would be awarding certificates for Commonwealth virtual schools that would open in 2014-2015. To receive a certificate, a CMVS must agree to comply with the Board's regulations.

To meet this ambitious timetable, I am requesting the Board to delegate authority to the Commissioner to issue requests for proposals under G.L. c. 71, § 94(b), inviting applicants that wish to open a Commonwealth of Massachusetts Virtual School. I further request the Board to delegate authority to the Commissioner to evaluate all responses received and to present recommendations to the Board for the issuance of certificates to establish Commonwealth of Massachusetts Virtual Schools.

Deputy Commissioner Jeff Wulfson, Senior Associate Commissioner Bob Bickerton, Associate Commissioner Cliff Chuang, and Luis Rodriguez, Director of our Office of Digital Learning, will be present at the meeting on January 29 to respond to your questions. I look forward to our discussion.


An Act Establishing Commonwealth Virtual Schools
Motion to Delegate Authority to Commissioner

Last Updated: January 24, 2013
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