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The Massachusetts Board of Elementary and Secondary Education

Virtual Innovation Schools: Waiver Requests from Greenfield and Hadley Public Schools; Legislative Proposal on Virtual Schools

To:
Members of the Board of Elementary and Secondary Education
From:
Mitchell D. Chester, Ed.D., Commissioner
Date:
May 13, 2011

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At this month's Board meeting we will continue our discussion of virtual schools. As you will recall, the 2010 achievement gap legislation (Chapter 12 of the Acts of 2010) authorized school committees to establish virtual schools under the new innovation school program. The Board subsequently adopted regulations which included several limitations on enrollment, including a 500-student limit for each virtual school and a requirement that at least 25% of the enrollment must be from students residing in the host district.

The Greenfield School Committee voted to establish a virtual innovation school for the 2010-2011 school year, named "MAVA (Massachusetts Virtual Academy) @ Greenfield". The school committee requested that the 25% in-district requirement be reduced to 2%. Acting on your behalf, I granted this waiver request for one year only. As you heard from Greenfield superintendent Susan Hollins at the Board's special meeting on April 26, the school has been in operation for the past year, serving more than 200 students in grades K-8, who come from over 80 sending districts. Greenfield has contracted the day-to-day operation of the school to a private, for-profit company, K12 Inc.

Greenfield is now requesting a continuation of their waiver for MAVA@Greenfield for the coming school year. In addition, Greenfield has announced plans to open a second virtual school, to serve grades 9 through 12. The Greenfield School Committee is requesting your approval of a waiver of the same in-district enrollment requirement for this second school. Correspondence from Superintendent Hollins requesting these two waivers is attached.

In addition, the Hadley School Committee has voted to establish a virtual innovation school for the 2011-2012 school year. Hadley is planning a school to serve grades 6 to 12, and the district has contracted with a private, for-profit company, Kaplan Virtual Education, for the day-to-day operation. Hadley is requesting a reduction of the in-district enrollment requirement to 2%, identical to the waiver granted to Greenfield this past year. Hadley's request is also attached.

Last month's special Board meeting gave us the opportunity to hear several different perspectives on the emergence of virtual schools as an educational option for parents and students. In addition to Superintendent Hollins, we heard from Dr. Susan Lowes of Teachers College at Columbia University; Susan Patrick of the International Association for K-12 Online Learning; and Kimberly Rice of the Boston Public Schools, who is the co-chair of the Board's educational technology advisory council.

From these presentations, and from our other research on practices in other states, it is fair to say that virtual schools are growing significantly in number and impact across the nation. Some parents are seeking this option for their children, and there are clearly students who, for various reasons, would benefit from this option. But we have also learned that the quality of these programs can vary greatly, and in most states there is significant involvement by the state education agency, either in directly operating a state-wide virtual school program or in authorizing their operation by local districts or other groups. In addition, because virtual schools by their very nature will serve large numbers of students from across the state, a state-wide perspective is needed to avoid unnecessary and wasteful duplication and overlap.

The Board expressed these concerns a year ago, when we discussed the adoption of regulations for virtual schools under the innovation school program. The autonomy of school committees under the 2010 innovation school law limited the Board's options, and this led to the adoption of enrollment limits as a tool for controlling growth. These rules were well intentioned, but based on our experience this past year, I have concluded that they are neither practical nor particularly effective in ensuring quality programs.

In my opinion, the innovation school program, where schools are authorized and overseen by local school committees, is not a good fit for this emerging, and still very experimental, educational model. I believe Massachusetts would be better served by bringing virtual schools under the charter school program, where this Board would have a much stronger role in authorizing schools and providing quality control. This change would require legislative approval, as well as some modification of the rules governing charter schools to accommodate the different financial needs and other unique characteristics of virtual schools. I am enclosing as an attachment to this memorandum an initial draft of legislative language to effectuate this change. I recommend that you endorse this draft legislative proposal, and that you defer action on new virtual schools until the Legislature has had the opportunity to consider this proposal.

In line with this recommendation, I am asking the Board to take the following four votes:

  • A vote to waive 603 CMR 48.05(2)(b) (the provision requiring 25% local student enrollment) for MAVA@Greenfield for the 2011-2012 school year, and in place thereof to require that at least 2% of the school's enrollment be residents of Greenfield. This will allow the existing school to continue in operation under the same restrictions as applied during this current (2010-2011) school year.

  • A vote to deny the waiver request submitted by the Greenfield School Committee for its proposed virtual high school.

  • A vote to deny the waiver request submitted by the Hadley School Committee for its proposed virtual school.

  • A vote to endorse the draft legislative proposal as discussed above, and to direct the Commissioner to communicate the Board's endorsement to the Legislature and Governor.

I will be sharing my recommendation for legislative action with Senator Sonia Chang-Diaz and Representative Alice Peisch, the co-chairs of the Joint Committee on Education, so that it might be considered for possible inclusion in the FY12 state budget. That would allow the Department to begin accepting applications for virtual charter schools this summer, to open in September 2012.

Associate Commissioner Jeff Wulfson and Director of Instructional Technology Connie Louie will join us for the discussion on May 24. In the meantime, if you need any additional information, please feel free to contact Jeff, Connie, or me.

Attachments

  1. Greenfield waiver request
  2. Hadley waiver request
  3. Innovation Schools Regulations, 603 CMR 48.00
  4. Draft legislative proposal
  5. Motion


Last Updated: May 19, 2011
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