My Turn: The virtual school

In the column by Chris Collins (March 29) titled “Virtual school details lacking,” he is critical of the associate commissioner, Jeff Wulfson, for being unsure of the “finer points” on how the new Commonwealth of Massachusetts Virtual Schools (CMVS) will be run.

Likewise, he is critical of the five Greenfield School Committee members who voted to submit a proposal to the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education (DESE) to become the first CMVS because questions could not yet be answered about how free and reduced lunch would be provided to those who may qualify and how physical education would be adhered to.

Now, I am simply a parent of one of the students in the Massachusetts Virtual Academy at Greenfield (MAVA). I do not hold an advanced degree, I am not a legislator or an employee of the DESE. What I do have is experience with the current virtual school, experience with traditional public schools and my common sense.

From what I have read, the history of MAVA with the Greenfield Public Schools (GPS) has been a rocky one. The entire seven-member Greenfield School Committee has never been unanimously in favor of the endeavor, and the Massachusetts DESE seemed to have been cautiously supportive after being convinced that this type of schooling may benefit students in the commonwealth. It seems that there has always been a concern about the lack of DESE oversight in regard to regulations as well as concern about a private company (K12) with an embattled CEO receiving profits from a public school.

State legislators initially made accommodations in the law to allow MAVA to move forward as a temporary fix. With the renewal of a three-year contract between GPS and K12, looming, they felt it was an emergency to put oversight in place in the form of the new Virtual School law. Legal incidents with virtual curriculum providers in other states also likely fueled the legislators’ urgency to ensure state regulations be put in place before a new contract could be signed.

With this urgency, along with a desire to give some autonomy and flexibility to the school, they wrote the new law in what Wulfson refers to as “broad strokes.” It seems logical that if the legislators had written the law for all possible scenarios up-front, GPS/MAVA would have found these laws too stringent to submit a proposal.

The DESE has made it clear that it will work with Greenfield’s administration to determine what regulations are reasonable for the new CMVS. As a parent of a student who attends MAVA, this seems like a much more tolerable solution than displacing nearly 500 students because the DESE is unclear how the school will provide free and reduced lunch or how they will enforce physical education.

Whether or not virtual schooling has every “t” crossed and every “i” dotted is secondary to what it is actually being done for the lives of hundreds of students in the commonwealth. The fact is that there are students across the United States who are no longer able to learn in the nation’s public schools. The reasons for this vary. Some students are gifted. Some are professional athletes or performers. Some are being bullied to the point of suicide. Some have medical conditions that prohibit their attendance. Some have behavioral, developmental or learning disabilities that are costly and often cause contention between schools and families. Some have simply fallen through the cracks of our current education system. Some are a combination of the above. Why would you deny these children an opportunity to learn for the sake of a “free and reduced lunch” plan?

Concerning the financial cost or benefit to the city, with the new law in place, it seems that Greenfield has figured out how to make the virtual school a community development project. As for the privatization of public funds, in my experience public school funds go to private companies regularly in many districts for textbooks, busing and transportation, professional development, food and facilities management, human resources management and payroll, special education services and more. Why should the purchase a virtual curriculum raise eyebrows?

Finally, another criticism that was stated is that it is not the job of a school committee to “run a private or charter school.” Fortunately for the Greenfield School Committee, they are not being asked to. What they are being asked to do is to submit a proposal to the DESE outlining the first CMVS and appoint a separate executive board to run the school. As a bonus, the Greenfield Public Schools can also make some money for their district by subcontracting some of their services to the new entity.

All in all, it seems like a good deal to me.

Krysten Callina is lives in Somerset with her husband and two children. Her son has been enrolled in MAVA for two years. She has served on the local Parents Advisory Council since 2009 as well as been a volunteer on local Parent Teacher Organizations since 2004. Krysten maintains the blog and works as a graphic designer. For more information about the MAVA parents’ advocacy for the CMVS, see Twitter and Youtube keyword #savemava.

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