A new state law opening the way for more virtual schools in Massachusetts is drawing mixed reactions from area school officials, with some welcoming it and others voicing concern.
The legislation, signed by Governor Deval Patrick on Jan. 3, establishes guidelines for the approval and operation of public schools in which teachers provide all or most instruction online for students who do not need to be present in a school building.
“Anything we can do to keep kids in school, I think, is beneficial,” said Superintendent John E. O’Connor of Tewksbury. “And if this can help some students maintain their academic focus, I’m all in favor of it. We just don’t have the resources, financial and manpower, to establish a school from scratch.”
Superintendent Frederick Foresteire of Everett said virtual schools offer potential advantages in allowing schools to serve students who cannot easily attend because of a disability or students who are prone to violence. “This may be another way to teach them,” he said.
“We are not rushing into this right now,” he said, adding that the School Department wants to hear more about the pluses and minuses of virtual schooling before deciding “how much we want to get into it.”
Under the new law, a single school district, a group of two or more districts, an education collaborative, an institution of higher education, a nonprofit, two or more certified teachers, or parents would be eligible to submit a proposal to the state to develop a virtual school. Private and parochial schools and for-profit entities would be excluded.
Preference will be given to applications that focus on serving students with physical challenges, students who have been expelled or who have dropped out of school, and those who are pregnant or already parents.
Districts would have to pay a per-pupil tuition fee for students who attend a virtual school that is not operated by its home district or a partnership that includes its home district.
The legislation allows no more than 10 virtual schools to operate at any one time, not including those established by a school district, multiple districts, or an education collaborative that serve only their own students. No more than 2 percent of students statewide can be enrolled full time in virtual schools.
At least 5 percent of students enrolled in a virtual school created by a school district must come from that district or 5 percent of the combined enrollment in the case of multiple districts or collaboratives. The state Board of Elementary and Secondary Education will issue the first request for proposals for virtual schools in October.
State Representative Martha M. Walz, a Boston Democrat and an original sponsor of the bill, said she pushed for it because “Massachusetts was falling behind other states in its ability to harness technology for the benefit of our students, and I felt it was important to change our state laws so that districts . . . and others could establish virtual schools.”
Currently, Massachusetts has one virtual school. The Massachusetts Virtual Academy at Greenfield was created in 2010 through a provision in education reform law that allowed districts to create innovation schools and to allow such schools to have a virtual format, Walz said.
She said the new law eliminates the option for an innovation school to be a virtual school, instead requiring that all virtual schools be established under the new guidelines.
Paul Dakin, school superintendent in Revere, said his district offers online learning within its buildings, “because we feel it’s important to expose students to that.”
But Dakin has significant concerns about virtual schools.
“A lot of what we do in the schools not only imparts the content of knowledge, but there are elements of democracy where kids learn how to work out differences and debate and talk and be contributing members of a group,” he said. “Where someone just works in isolation online, that can lead, in my own opinion, to a society that doesn’t look out for one another.”
His said he would also want to know how content-driven and demanding the instruction would be and “what security there is to ensure a particular kid is doing his own work. . . . I just have major concerns.”
Patrick Larkin, Burlington’s assistant superintendent and a former high school principal, received the Digital Principal Award last spring from the National Association of Secondary School Principals for his leadership in promoting the integration of new technologies.
Larkin welcomes the new legislation, but wishes it went further in advancing online learning.
“I am happy that the Commonwealth and the governor are working along this topic of virtual schooling, but I get disappointed when I see Massachusetts is not at the forefront of things like this,” he said.
Larkin said his school and some others are not far from having the capability to offer a blended school that combines instruction in the classroom and online.
“We feel the state is not as close as we are to our vision,” he said.