Virtual School

Editorial: Old school costs

As futuristic as Greenfield’s experiment in the world of the “virtual” education may seem to some, there remain some very concrete aspects of this use of technology and the Internet that remain quite old school.

Like the fact that education costs money.

Thus, the Massachusetts Virtual Academy — the online school run in partnership between the Greenfield Public Schools and K12, the for-profit online education company — is an expensive endeavor. How much? Over a three-year period, one that has included growth in the student population over the last two years as word of what Greenfield was doing spread throughout Massachusetts, the total stands at $6 million. And because of the contract, one that caps a per-student cost at $5,000 as set by the state, K12 says it has had to operate at a loss for fiscal years 2011 and 2012 — to the tune of $640,000.

The good news here, according to Greenfield school officials, is that the district hasn’t had to share in this loss. Quite the opposite, actually, since they say that running the Massachusetts Virtual Academy has not cost town taxpayers any money in providing its share of services as outlined in the contract between Greenfield and K12. Greenfield also doesn’t have to pay for the dozen or so of its students who are using the virtual academy.

Still this public-private partnership does raise questions about costs and the ability to safeguard that students are getting aren’t coming out on the losing end.

Not to pass the buck here, but that should now be under the purview of the state education department in light of the new law overseeing online education and virtual schools in Massachusetts. While local districts establishing such schools will have a degree of local control as the oversight body, the state should be the one monitoring finances to find the right balance in a relationship with a for-profit educational business, whether its K12 or some other concern.

Unfortunately, that’s one of the details that seems to be missing from the current law.

In the short term, as Greenfield puts together its proposal for a online school under the new regulations, it does have more leeway when it comes to tuition, thus reducing some of the red ink that K12 has seen.

But going ahead, it would be appropriate and critical for the Massachusetts Department of Elementary and Secondary Education to be the lead agency in negotiating and keeping tabs on finances, especially since the state is much more involved under this new setup.

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