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Virtual school details lacking

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It became pretty apparent while watching last Thursday night’s Greenfield School Committee meeting that the only thing Massachusetts school officials really know about the new law governing virtual schools is what to name them.

“It’s a ‘commonwealth virtual school,’ a unique entity,” Jeffrey Wulfson, state deputy commissioner of Elementary and Secondary Education.

“And I suspect that we don’t have all of the details worked out quite yet.”

Wulfson was responding to a question from committee member Darryl Essensa, part of an “informational” round robin that I dare say raised more questions than it answered — but apparently not enough to keep five of the committee’s seven members from rescinding a previous vote to close the current innovation virtual school, and instruct Superintendent Susan Hollins to develop a request for proposals to establish the first-ever Massachusetts commonwealth virtual school in Greenfield.

“We are starting with a law that none of us are going to have much of an opportunity to change,” Wulfson admitted. “And, as we develop policies, we intend to consult with you and we hope it is a two-way process with input flowing in both directions.”

“I don’t see any requirements coming down in the next year which will be alien to what you have done here already, or which will create any insurmountable obstacles,” Wulfson added.

I’d feel better about that if Wulfson had he given any indication that he understood anything about virtual schools, and how the state may choose to operate them. He talked, instead, about how the legislation gives a lot of guidance on the “broad strokes” of who will operate the school, how the finances work, and how private companies like K-12 Inc., which helps run the current Greenfield virtual academy, might be involved.

The problem is that school districts don’t operate on broad strokes. It’s the finer details which are usually the difference between administrative success and potentially expensive state sanctions.

But if Wulfson is to be believed, many of the finer details of this form of education don’t yet exist yet — which means Greenfield is likely going to be the guinea pig for the commonwealth’s grand virtual experiment.

The majority of the committee is apparently fine with that. The one member to really push the issue that was Maryelen Calderwood, who has never been a fan of the virtual school concept, and is even less of one since the passage of the new commonwealth virtual school law.

Calderwood doesn’t believe public school districts should be operating what is, essentially, a charter school, a position Board Chairman John Lunt also held prior to Thursday night’s vote. The commonwealth model calls for the virtual school to be operated by a separate governing committee independent of the elected school board.

Calderwood pushed for specifics on who would profit from these virtual schools ... the answer to which, according to Wulfson, is largely up to the host district.

“There is no requirement in the law that the school hire a private firm, and the school can certainly propose that, but the decision on who to contract with and the terms of that contract are up to the committee, and managing it would be the responsibility of the operating board of the school,” Wulfson said.

An operating board that, as Calderwood pointed out, may or may not be legal under the town’s existing charter.

Calderwood then quizzed Wulfson on a few of the other “fine points,” including how the operation of the school would be impacted by existing state and federal mandates regarding free and reduced lunch, sports participation and physical education.

“We’re certain that the proposers of these virtual schools will take the initiative to suggest how they will deal with those issues,” Wulfson said. “I don’t have all the answers and don’t know enough about virtual schools to suggest ways to deal with it.”

“I do know that the issue has been addressed in other states, and I hope that you will address it, but the burden comes back to us to ensure compliance through program quality reviews, just like we do with brick-and-mortar schools,” Wulfson said.

These are all details which Greenfield has less than a month to figure out if it is to continue to offer an educational option which is clearly very important to a majority of this committee, and to the roughly 500 students it serves, only a fraction of which are from Greenfield.

We can only hope that the rest of Greenfield’s students and their parents aren’t the ones who wind up regretting it.

Chris Collins is the Franklin County News Bureau Chief for WHAI, WPVQ and WHMP Radio. He is a former staff reporter for The Recorder, and is a Greenfield native.

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