The Virginia legislature has an opportunity in the waning days of this session to ensure the rights of Virginia families to choose the educational option that best suits their needs. Senate Bill 598 (Virtual School Funding), as introduced in January, was well-written and balanced, and ensured fair funding for public school students who wanted to access high-quality, full-time online schools available to students throughout the state – schools that were state-approved during the rigorous Virginia Department of Education review process. Last-minute changes made to the bill in late February included striking well-balanced language in the bill, and instead inserting clauses designed to limit student access to online learning programs.
The strike-out language takes away a parent’s choice for open enrollment and allows the district offering an online learning program to restrict their own residents to only attend the district’s program – even if the student is already enrolled in an out of district program or if the district program does not meet their students’ unique needs. This effectively bans families, including military families that rely on the flexibility of online options for their students, from choosing another online learning program outside of their district – even if the school is Virginia Department of Education approved, quality public online school somewhere else in the state.
Online learning is inherently scalable, designed to reach across geographic boundaries, so that students can access the best quality programs and teachers online from any place or zip code. The funding model was also removed from the bill, shutting down options to taxpaying parents and students.
In his January 2012 State of the Commonwealth address, Governor McDonnell made his position on school choice very clear, stating “A child’s educational opportunities should be determined by her intellect and work ethic, not by her neighborhood or zip code.” He also added that we need a “fair funding formula” for educational options. Nearly a month later, addressing a large crowd of school choice advocates, the Governor again said, “We’ve got to have greater choices.” In its current form, Senate Bill 598 represents a considerable step backward for the interests of Virginia’s students to access educational opportunities that prepare them for the global economy, where one-third of today’s college students take an online course. Virginia’s universities offer high-quality online courses. Virginia state policy needs to catch up, so that K-12 students can access a range of supplemental online courses and schools to meet their needs for personalized instruction, using digital resources and 21st century instruction provided by the best teachers across the state.
I urge the elected leaders of Virginia to do the right thing – restore the power to make high-quality, educational choices for each child in Virginia, and provide the equitable funding to ensure high-quality programs and academic success for all students. Simple geography should not be a barrier to accessing a world-class education.