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Local committee ends Massachusetts' first virtual school

Posted by Jim Stergios  March 4, 2013 09:27 AM

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The Boston Globe and the Boston Herald are reporting that last week the Greenfield School Committee voted to shutter the state’s first and only public virtual school.

Here’s the Globe piece by Evan Allen:

The academy opened in 2010 and serves about 470 students in kindergarten through eighth grade from all across the Commonwealth. It will close on June 30, according to committee members.

… One of the district’s major objections was that the School Committee would no longer have had direct oversight of the school.

“It would be an autonomous school governed by a separate committee that would not be publicly elected,” said committee member Marcia Day, who voted in favor of not submitting the proposal to the state. “I really feel like it’s important for public education to be under local control with school committee members who are elected directly.”

Allen’s story includes a quote from a family that was well-served by the Massachusetts Virtual Academy, and certainly the school worked for some of its students. That said, the school, which was formed through a partnership between the Greenfield School Committee and a private virtual vendor (K12, Inc.) was not performing at the level many had hoped.

I have noted in the past a number of its challenges – and the poorly crafted elements of the law enabling the Academy to be established. For example, the funding system for virtual schools which is dependent on checks being cut by peer districts is untenable. Moreover, unlike the Florida Virtual School (FLVS), payments for students are received in a way that is not tied to accountable performance by the school. In the case of FLVS, the school only receives payments if and when the student successfully completes a course.

State law and regulations should have followed that high-accountability path for any new virtual school – especially the first one. Moreover state law and regulations emphasize seat time and geographic limitations on who can take courses through the virtual school. These all hampered the school’s ability to be successful.

But even if these parameters of law and regulations make it hard to be successful in Massachusetts with a virtual school, the leadership and choice of vendor to work with in establishing the school are questionable.

While K12, Inc., has a presence in many other parts of the country and has some strong product lines, it also came to this endeavor with a mixed track record. Consider the Stephanie Saul report in the New York Times, which demonstrated a 50 percent “churn” rate for K12-affiliated vendors:
http://boston.com/community/blogs/rock_the_schoolhouse/2011/12/tough_times_on_virtual_learnin.html

The constant cycle of enrollment and withdrawal, called the churn rate, appears to be a problem at many schools. Records Agora filed with Pennsylvania reveal that 2,688 students withdrew during the 2009-10 school year. At the same time, K12 continued to sign up new students. Enrollment at the end of the year — 4,890 — was 170 students more than at the beginning, obscuring the high number of withdrawals.

As I noted at the time:

Saul's piece is helpful when it underscores an issue that states interested in expanding digital learning have to get their arms around: How payments and incentives are structured to online vendors is crucial to ensuring accountability for recruitment and retention, as well as student achievement.

Without a strong accountability system in place, that’s probably not a company you want to start out with – and it may not be a firm you want to have present in the market. Again, for me strong accountability means you pay for success and only for success.

Given its performance, the closure of the Massachusetts Virtual Academy does not surprise me. But the reality is that the school’s performance is not why the MVA is being shut down. The real reason the local school committee is shutting it down is because it does not want to have the virtual school it created become a charter school.

So, a poorly performing virtual school run by the district was okay, but that same school if out of their control is not okay? What kind of logic is that?

It's the logic of our district schools in far too many public systems. The fact is that once the MVA was put to approval as a Commonwealth virtual school, it would have had to articulate clear goals and be held accountable for delivering results.

So the closure that has come about is the result of the school committee's desire to maintain local authority and control over money and resources.

Crossposted at Pioneer's blog. Follow me on twitter at @jimstergios, or visit Pioneer's website.

This blog is not written or edited by Boston.com or the Boston Globe.
The author is solely responsible for the content.

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About the author

Jim Stergios is executive director of the Pioneer Institute. Before joining Pioneer, he was Chief of Staff and Undersecretary for Policy in the Commonwealth's Executive Office of Environmental Affairs, where More »

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