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Proposed state law would mean more oversight, competition for virtual schools

A bill being considered by the Massachusetts legislature would increase state oversight and provide competition for virtual schools, defined as those where educators teach online from a remote location and students are not required to be housed in a physical school building.

House Bill 4274, which has been referred to the Ways and Means Committee, states that proposals for virtual schools can be submitted to the state Board of Education by school districts, education collaboratives, colleges and universities, nonprofits, teachers or parents. It prohibits proposals from for-profit businesses or private and parochial schools. Virtual schools can contract with for-profit companies for services.

The latest version of the proposed bill sets a cap of not more than 10 virtual schools operating in the state at any one time and an enrollment requirement that not less than 5 percent of students come from a virtual school’s establishing school district. Tuition will be paid by sending districts using the existing school choice formula of $5,000 per student.

State Education Commissioner Mitchell D. Chester said the law is needed to achieve stronger “consumer protection and quality control” of virtual schools.

Without it, “you essentially have a statewide school run by a school district with no role for the state,” he said. “This legislation defines that role.”

Joan Schuman, executive director of the Northampton-based Collaborative for Educational Services, said the new law also defines a “significant role” for nonprofits such as hers in advancing online education.

The Collaborative provides 50 seats for online courses offered by the Virtual High School Consortium to its member districts.

Schuman added that by setting caps and more workable enrollment requirements, the proposed law “builds a statewide system that doesn’t have one school system pitted against another” in competition for students.

The state’s only virtual school, the Massachusetts Virtual Academy in Greenfield, opened in 2010 under contract with for-profit K-12 Inc. and now serves 460 students in kindergarten through eighth grade from 145 districts across the state.

The proposed new law includes language allowing the Greenfield virtual school to continue operating as is for up to five years. After that, the school would compete for approval for statewide virtual school slots.

Two years ago, Hadley school officials announced plans to open a virtual school for students in sixth through 12th grade under contract with the for-profit Kaplan Virtual Education of Florida. Those plans were set aside in the wake of concerns raised by state education leaders over the need for more quality control.

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