The Massachusetts Board of Elementary and Secondary Education

Regulations on Innovation Schools, 603 CMR 48.00

Members of the Board of Elementary and Secondary Education
Mitchell D. Chester, Ed.D., Commissioner
July 13, 2010

At this month's meeting we will continue our discussion about virtual innovation schools. As you know, innovation schools were established by the Legislature earlier this year as part of the Act Relative to the Achievement Gap (Chapter 12 of the Acts of 2010). Innovation schools are public schools operating within a school district with increased autonomy and flexibility to improve school performance and student achievement. The innovation schools statute (M.G.L. c.71, s.92; copy attached) directs the Board to promulgate regulations in particular to guide the creation and operation of virtual innovation schools. In these regulations we define virtual innovation schools as schools whose students receive 80 percent or more of their academic instruction on-line at a location other than a public school building. Although many Massachusetts high schools offer individual on-line courses to their students as an adjunct to classroom instruction, this represents our first foray into the world of full-time virtual schools.

The Board voted to send out draft regulations in April for public comment. Based on those public comments, a revised set of regulations was discussed at last month's meeting. Various members of the Board thought there was a need for additional controls and oversight with respect to virtual schools, given that it is still an unproven pedagogy. The Board expressed a desire to allow experimentation but to place some limits on the growth of virtual schools until the initial results can be evaluated. Concern was also expressed about the potential financial impact on districts that will be required to pay tuition for those students who enroll in these virtual schools. The Board voted to adopt the portion of the regulations that applied to all innovation schools and directed me to revise the portion specific to virtual schools, in order to address the concerns raised. This further revision is before you for a vote this month.

I have held additional discussions with the group of educators and legislators that have been advising me throughout this process. I also spoke at length with Susan Patrick, the head of the International Association for K-12 On-line Learning (, an advocacy organization that is a source of information on current research and best practices. We have also continued to research activities in other states. I've attached a summary of the legal framework for virtual schools in Colorado, Minnesota, Ohio, Oregon, and Pennsylvania, five states that have been particularly active in this area.

There are few if any models in other states for restricting participation in virtual schools to certain sub-groups of students or to certain age groups. In general, virtual schools are treated as another option for parental choice. Our advisory group felt strongly that we should not impose restrictions based on pre-conceived notions of which students might benefit from such a program.

We also noted that most other states use a charter-type authorizing process for virtual schools, whereby a third party authorizer, or the state itself, has direct approval and oversight authority over virtual schools. In the enabling legislation here in Massachusetts, the Legislature chose not to adopt that approach, instead giving local school committees the right to establish virtual schools at their own discretion, subject to regulations adopted by the Board.

The revised regulations I am bringing back to you this month for your consideration include several provisions to limit virtual school enrollment, at least in the early years of this brand new program. In making these proposals, I am trying to be responsive to the Board's concerns while at the same time respecting the autonomy given to school committees under the Massachusetts legislation and the desire to encourage, and not discourage, innovation and experimentation.

  1. The first provision limits enrollment in any single virtual school to 500 students. The technology underlying virtual schools could undoubtedly handle much larger numbers of students. This limit will guard against an unproven school being "too big to fail" (a scenario that the Board faced earlier this year), while preventing school committees from approving large virtual schools simply to maximize their revenues. Particularly during this initial experimentation, school committees must focus on the procedures and oversight needed to ensure that each enrolled student will be properly served.

  2. The second provision requires that at least 25% of the school's enrollment must come from the sponsoring district. This is consistent with the overall intent of the innovation school statute, which is aimed at enhancing the educational opportunities for students within a school district. Two exceptions are carved out. First, if a virtual school is intended to serve a specialized population (such as students at risk of dropping out or students institutionalized in hospitals or correctional facilities), then the 25% requirement is reduced to 10%. Second, if there is a written agreement with other districts to serve as co-sponsors of the school, then the enrollment from all of the sponsoring districts could be counted toward meeting this requirement. The statute specifically allows and encourages districts to partner in the development of innovation schools.

  3. The last provision sets a two percent limit on the number of students for which a district would have to pay tuition for an out-of-district virtual school. For example, if a district has an enrollment of 10,000 students, it would not have to pay tuition for more than 200 students enrolling in virtual schools in other districts. This provision is intended to address the concern that the state-wide nature of a virtual school could result in significant costs to sending districts.

There is also general agreement that the state has an obligation to evaluate the performance of these on-line schools and the performance of the sponsoring school committees in overseeing them. The regulations provide the Department with the authority to require additional reporting, and the motion for your approval directs me to report back to you each year with our findings. I plan to continue and expand our existing advisory committee to help inform these reviews and identify the questions we should be asking. I also plan to ask the Legislature for additional resources to conduct this evaluation program, possibly in the form of a tuition surcharge that would be made available to the Department. Robust evaluations will help us decide whether additional restrictions or controls are needed, or whether the enrollment limits I have proposed can be relaxed or eliminated. In addition, there is much that we can learn about the application of technology that will help us maximize resources to improve education.

It is clear that the Legislature wants to permit expanded use of on-line learning in Massachusetts, and there are districts ready to implement it. I believe these revised regulations, coupled with a robust evaluation program, are our best strategy for ensuring that these new programs are educationally and financially sound. We want to encourage innovation but at the same time we need to protect the interests of students, provide accountability, and guard against unintended negative financial impacts on our districts, particularly in the midst of the current fiscal crisis.

I urge the Board to adopt these regulations at our July 21 meeting. Without regulations, virtual schools will still be able to open, but without the safeguards represented by this proposal.

Deputy Commissioner Jeff Nellhaus, General Counsel Rhoda Schneider, Associate Commissioner Jeff Wulfson, and Connie Louie, the director of our instructional technology office, will be present at the Board meeting to answer any questions you may have.


Download PDF Document
Innovation school legislation
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Proposed regulations (Update: Regulations adopted by the Board of Elementary and Secondary Education on July 21, 2010)
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Information on framework for virtual schools in other states
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Motion to adopt regulations