Massachusetts Expands Virtual Schooling—but is it the right path forward?

Massachusetts has taken its time allowing virtual schooling options for students. There are a few supplemental online course options for many Massachusetts students including The VHS Collaborative (based in Massachusetts) which served 6,213 course enrollments in SY 2011-12, and TEC Online Academy, which served 200 students in 30 courses last year. The state has one fully virtual school available to students, the Massachusetts Virtual Academy at Greenfield (MAVA). MAVA opened in school year (SY) 2010-11, and served 484 students in SY 2011-12. Fully online schools became a reality in Massachusetts in 2010 with the passage of 603 CMR 1.00. As detailed in the Massachusetts state profile in Keeping Pace 2011, “in July 2010, the Board of Elementary and Secondary Education (BESE) adopted guidelines for innovation schools, including virtual innovation schools. The guidelines cap enrollment for online schools at 500 students, require that 25% of those students live in the district operating the school, require that no more than 2% of a school’s enrollments may come from any other single district, and give the Education Commissioner the power to approve any requests to waive the restrictions.” As a result, very few students have been able to take advantage of a fully online education in the state.

In a flurry of last-minute action as it wrapped up its 2012 session, the Massachusetts legislature passed H4274 [Note: this is not the final version of the bill; a link to the final will be posted when available], which allows for more virtual schools, but they will continue to operate under restrictions. The bill Governor Deval Patrick signed on January 3:

  • Sets virtual school per-pupil tuition at the state school choice amount, which will be paid by the district in which the student resides. According to the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education, “FY12 school choice tuition rates are set at 75 percent of the FY11 operating cost per full-time equivalent pupil for the receiving school district, with a cap of $5,000.”
  • Directs the BESE to adopt comprehensive policies for virtual schools.
  • Limits the number of virtual schools serving students in multiple districts in the state to 10 as of 2019, beginning with up to three during the 2013-16 school years.
  • Caps the number of students statewide who can attend virtual schools at 2% of the state’s K-12 public school population (about 19,000 students).
  • Sets a 5% minimum number of students in any given virtual school that must come from the school’s sponsoring district(s) (for MAVA the minimum is 2%).
  • Mandates a detailed annual report.

In a positive move for virtual school students, the legislation allows the BESE board to waive attendance requirements and allow for competency-based learning. It also requires, however, that virtual schools are required to provide synchronous learning opportunities for students.

It also requests that virtual schools address a wide variety of issues related to student and teacher success in their applications to BESE, including whether the school will offer supplemental online classes to students enrolled in other schools (which can be charged to the student’s home district); what teacher professional development and evaluation methods will be used, especially for teachers new to teaching online; how the school will address the needs of English Language Learners and other students with special needs; and what supports will be made available before and during classes to ensure student success.

The most concerning requirements in the new law are the stipulation that 5% of the students must come from the sponsoring district, and the funding cap of $5,000. Data from other states show that, in almost all states with well-established fully online schools, less than 2% of all students in the state are attending these schools, and generally online schools attract students from a wide geographic area. We also know that many online and blended schools and programs require a minimum critical mass to be successful. It is unclear what the benefit of the 5% rule is; in practice it may keep schools small and below the critical mass needed for success.

The funding cap of $5,000 limits funding to a level that is under half the national funding average, roughly 40% of the funding level across Massachusetts, and lower than the level of funding for online schools in most states. Although the cost drivers of online schools are admittedly different than those of brick-and-mortar schools, we are not aware of evidence that suggests that $5,000 per student is a sufficient funding level for online schools. We urge policymakers to set an equitable funding to ensure the viability of high-quality, innovative fully online schools.


**Update February 12, 2013

The final version of the bill has been made available online:

The final bill includes an important clause that should be noted in our summary: school committees may vote to restrict the total number of its students enrolled in virtual schools to no more than 1% of the total enrollment in the district, provided that no student shall be required to withdraw from a virtual school.