Governor Deval Patrick yesterday signed H. 4274, "An Act Establishing Commonwealth Virtual Schools." This legislation expands online educational opportunities for students across the Commonwealth and secures proper state oversight of virtual schools to ensure that all students receive a high quality education.
"Virtual schools will open new avenues for students to prepare for future success," said Governor Patrick. "I thank the members of the Education Committee and our partners in the Legislature for taking this important step."
This bill establishes clear guidelines for the approval and operation of Commonwealth virtual schools, and directs the Board of Elementary and Secondary Education (the Board) to draft comprehensive regulations governing the structure and oversight of virtual schools in Massachusetts. The Department of Elementary and Secondary Education (DESE) will also develop and publish a listing of online courses aligned with current state academic standards that virtual schools may use. The bill also creates a Digital Learning Advisory Council, comprised of fifteen members appointed by the Board, to advise DESE on all matters relating to virtual schools.
Under this legislation, 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 to develop a virtual school. Private and parochial schools and for-profit entities are not eligible to apply. Preference will be given to applications that take into consideration the following groups when approving proposals: 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.
"We are committed to building a 21st century education system here in Massachusetts - one that meets each student where he or she is and delivers a high quality education in the format and setting that best suits that student's needs," said Education Secretary Paul Reville. "This bill allows us to further develop that 21st century system, while also ensuring the proper accountability and oversight of virtual schools to match our high standards for teaching and learning."
The bill mandates that no more than ten virtual schools may operate at one time in Massachusetts and no more than two percent of students enrolled statewide may be enrolled full-time in virtual schools. Virtual schools established by a school district, multiple districts or an education collaborative that serve only their own students do not count toward this cap. All other virtual schools established by those entities must enroll at least 5 percent of their students from the district(s) or collaboratives that established the school.
"As parents explore alternative educational options for their children, this legislation provides the state with the necessary oversight to ensure that virtual schools provide students with a quality program of instruction," said Elementary and Secondary Education Commissioner Mitchell Chester. "I applaud the leadership of Education Committee Co-Chairs Senator Chang-Diaz and Representative Peisch, with their colleagues Representative Walz and Senator Brownsberger, for establishing a consumer protection role in regard to virtual schooling."
"The bill does two important things: it puts another tool into the toolbox of our K-12 districts to deliver education to students who have a wide range of needs and learning styles. And it does so in a way that ensures rigorous, high-quality programs--not the warehousing of kids in front of computers that some people might fear when they hear "virtual education,'" said Senator Sonia Chang-Diaz, Senate Chair of the Joint Committee on Education. "I did not start out as an enthusiast for virtual education, but I am now convinced that it has a real role to play in serving certain high-need populations throughout out Commonwealth. Representative Walz and Senators Brownsberger and Rosenberg deserve a lot of credit for their tenacious advocacy on this issue."
"This new law provides a controlled way to expand virtual education in Massachusetts, and strikes an appropriate balance between promoting innovation and ensuring accountability," said Representative Alice Peisch, House Chair of the Joint Committee on Education.
"Virtual schools offer a new option for students whose needs are not being met in traditional brick and mortar schools. Using technology, we can provide a high quality education and allow these students to achieve their full potential," said Representative Martha M. Walz.
"I'm very pleased with the Patrick-Murray Administration's support of this important legislation," said Senator William Brownsberger. "I am hopeful that this legislation will help Massachusetts begin to develop new ways to meet the diverse educational needs of our children."
Requests for Proposal (RFPs) must be issued by the Board each year by October 1. The Board may select up to three virtual schools for the 2013-2016 school years, another three schools for the 2016-2019 school years and up to four more for the 2019-2020 school year. Certificates of operation will be awarded to virtual schools for three to five years, as determined by the Board.