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Virtual school: pass or fail?

It is very exciting to think that the Greenfield Public Schools can be a leader in statewide and nationwide initiatives related to innovation and online education. Greenfield is in an unusual position of having the first virtual online school in Massachusetts.

However, in the three years since Greenfield’s virtual school was implemented, many concerned citizens have raised important questions that continue to go unanswered.

Many of these questions relate to this growing national trend: large for-profit corporations, identifying themselves as educational experts, are investing significant funds in lobbying for policies that support the sales of their products in public education settings.

Within the last year, numerous investigative reports — which have included mentions of Greenfield’s virtual school — have pointed out that this model undermines the value of public education, and transfers both decision-making and stewardship of public dollars to private, for-profit groups.

There is no question that our school systems need to continue thinking about how to invest wisely and seek new opportunities for effective models that provide a solid foundation, leverage and infrastructure for student achievement.

But we continue to have particular concerns about the involvement of K12 Inc., the large for-profit vendor running Greenfield’s Massachusetts Virtual Academy.

A Dec. 16, 2012 investigative piece in The Republican (Springfield) and Masslive.com reported that students in the K12-run online school ranked second lowest in the state on students’ progress in the MCAS math and English exams. They also post an unusually high attrition rate.

The Maine Sunday Telegram also ran an investigative series that detailed how K12 Inc., the Jeb Bush organization Foundation for Excellence in Education, and the corporate-backed American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC) were recently involved in crafting policies (later tabled) to create taxpayer-funded virtual schools in Maine.

Now, Greenfield’s contract with K12 is up for renewal and the Greenfield School Committee will vote on it soon.

At the same time, Massachusetts has just passed legislation to provide accountability and avoid pitfalls for future virtual school efforts. In the Dec. 16, 2012 Republican article, Massachusetts Commissioner of Elementary and Secondary Education Mitchell Chester noted that the “performance of the Greenfield (virtual) academy ‘absolutely’ demonstrates a need for state oversight.”

Our community deserves transparency and continuous feedback so we know and understand how our tax money is spent. Our society is best served when publicly funded schools are accountable to the whole community and open to all children. We expect our schools to educate the whole child and to meet the needs of the families and community.

The next Greenfield School Committee meeting is scheduled for Thursday at 6:30 p.m. at the Greenfield High School Library. All meetings are open to the public. Also, the public can contact the superintendent and School Committee members to share opinions.

For links to the articles referenced above and other resources about K12 and public education, please go to blog.helenepowers.com/public education.

Francia Wisnewski is a member of the Greenfield School Committee. Helene J. Powers is a Greenfield resident.

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