State’s virtual public schools deserve same accountability system as brick-and-mortar schools
NASHVILLE, Tenn., March 16, 2015 – PublicSchoolOptions.org (PSO) stands with all of Tennessee’s public virtual schools, their teachers, families and students in calling on state legislators to reauthorize and eliminate the sunset provision for Tennessee’s Virtual Public Schools Act. PSO also joins with a coalition of all of Tennessee’s virtual schools united in their belief that they should not be held to accountability frameworks that are unequal and separate from other public schools, which has led to punitive actions by the Department of Education against virtual schools, rather than to improve schools as intended by the legislature.
“Tennessee’s virtual public schools are providing wonderful opportunities for students from all around the state to learn in an environment that suits them best,” said Beth Purcell, president of PSO, a national alliance of parents that supports and defends parents’ rights to access the best public school options for their children.
On February 27, nine of Tennessee’s virtual public schools united together to sign a policy document urging the state to renew the Virtual Public School Act and allow all online schools to remain open for families. The policy document, which was sent to the governor, commissioner of education, and legislative leadership, called on the state to eliminate the sunset provision in the Act and to treat virtual public schools equally by using the same accountability standards as used for every other public school in the state.
“Reauthorizing this act, eliminating the sunset provision and treating virtual public schools fairly and equally to traditional public schools will ensure all Tennessee children receive a great public education,” Purcell said. “It’s the right thing to do. Children who attend virtual schools are public school students, too, and deserve equal treatment under the law.”
Purcell said unfair treatment of the state’s only statewide K-8 virtual public school, Tennessee Virtual Academy (TNVA), and its 1,300 public school students, many of whom are special needs and at-risk students, has forced parents to file a lawsuit against the Commissioner of Education for unlawfully ordering the school to close. The Department of Education is ignoring tremendous progress the virtual public school made last year. Failure to reauthorize the state’s law on virtual public schools would only further disenfranchise many Tennessee families and their children.
The parents’ lawsuit contends the department exceeded its authority in ordering the school’s closure. It asks the court to intervene and declare that the Commissioner cannot order any virtual schools closed until after the 2015-2016 school year, as intended by the law, and that the Commissioner cannot require that virtual schools reach higher achievement levels than what the law set forth. This is especially important to the plaintiffs when their public school, TNVA, has significantly improved its academic outcomes from 2013 to 2014. TNVA showed the most improvement of over 125 other schools that also received a Level 1 rating in each of the last three years, yet the Department has not ordered any of those schools to close and, instead, unfairly targeted TNVA.
“Tennessee Virtual Academy is one of the fastest improving schools in the state,” Purcell said. “We’ve heard from hundreds of parents who tell us that they chose TNVA because it’s the best school for their child. If they close it, there are no other statewide virtual public schools serving grades K-8, meaning many students will be forced to go back to schools that were not working for them. The wide held belief that all TNVA students can simply go to another virtual school simply isn’t true, and that’s heartbreaking to these families and their students.”
After Union County opened the school in 2011, and worked to transition students to an online learning model, the department’s own data revealed TNVA began significantly improving its student outcomes from 2013 to 2014. In fact, last year TNVA realized improvements seven times greater than schools with the same level rating, despite facing several unique challenges, including serving a higher percentage of special education and low-income students than the state average.
“Using test scores alone to arbitrarily shut down Tennessee Virtual Academy will punish students who are making dramatic advances and is not consistent with the laws of the state governing accountability of public schools; more importantly, the rules are not being fairly applied,” Purcell said. “Our parents, teachers and students are confident that once the facts about Tennessee Virtual Academy are known, then legislators, the public and the administration will realize that closing the school is wrong and unfair, and will only hurt children who need this public school option.”
TNVA is a public school run by Union County Public Schools and ultimately reports to the elected Union County school board. TNVA faces several challenges serving a higher percentage of special education and low-income students than the state average. Fifteen percent of TNVA students receive special education services, and 74 percent of its families qualify for free/reduced lunches, according to Union County.
TNVA is the state’s only full-time, K-8 statewide online public school. For many families it is the lone public school that fits the needs of their children. Last month, hundreds of students and educators descended on the state Capitol to express their support for protecting the right of parents to choose the school that works best for their children.
There are 1,300 unique students and 1,300 unique stories as to how and why TNVA is working to meet student and family needs – students who are excelling or who are far behind; students with significant and, in some cases, debilitating or even life-threatening illnesses; students who have been threatened or bullied; students with special needs, including many students with autism, who find it difficult to achieve in a traditional classroom.