Another one bites the Dust

Virtual Community School shuts its doors because of ODE’s retroactive, flawed regulations

By Connor Brown

Newark—At its special meeting on July 31, the board for the Virtual Community School voted to suspend operations and not open for the start of the school year. In a letter posted on its website, VCS Superintendent Jeff Nelson explained that ODE’s unreasonable rules and looming claw back of funds would mean the school would be too underfunded to serve its students. He explained that the millions demanded back by ODE would force the schools “to greatly reduce services to you: our students. This would have a significant impact on our ability to continue acting out our Mission.”

“This is a student-centered decision,” said Mr. Nelson in a follow up interview with 3rd Rail Politics. “It would be wrong to start the school year if we weren't able to get the students through the entire year. We have the funds to get to December or January, but the Board was concerned about the impact on the students if the school was forced to close by ODE mid-year.”

Faced with demands for millions of dollars, unreasonable and retroactive durational rules, and a rigged appeals process, VCS decided to take the high road and help its students find somewhere else to complete their education.

VCS, like most online schools, mostly acts as a dropout recovery school, accepting students who are too far behind in credits to graduate on time in their traditional schools. Many of their students are older, have families, or just need the flexibility that an online school could provide.

But those students will have that option no more.

About 700 students were planning on starting the school year with VCS, and about 36 teachers as well. All are now scrambling to find a school, or a job, because of ODE’s actions.

ODE continues to maintain that they support school choice and these “routine” FTE reviews are not about closing e-schools… but with VCS closed, ECOT on the ropes, and all the other FTE reviewed schools either closed or in appeals, it’s nearly impossible to believe that’s true. Every single e-school CHOSEN by ODE to receive an FTE review audit for the 2015-16 school year is in the same predicament and all might soon be closed. How could anyone look at these facts and not conclude ODE is on a witch hunt?

But ODE should be careful in its cavalier ways of clawing back funds. If a few of these schools manage to stay open while funds are being clawed back, their per-pupil spending ratio will plummet to possibly illegal levels. E-school parents at these schools might have legal grounds to sue ODE for discriminating against their children by not providing adequate funding. As e-school students tend to be from high-poverty areas, and e-schools have higher rates of special needs students, not to mention higher averages of minority students, this will likely become a discrimination issue.

And they would have a valid argument. After all, it’s not the students fault that some ODE edu-crat can’t determine what paperwork they want to see from schools to verify duration. Why should those students suffer? Should they not have access to the best teachers, curriculum, and education events as other students? And does ODE really want 20, 21, and 22-year old seniors walking the halls with 13-year old freshman? Or will these students just never receive their diplomas at all?

These questions will soon move from the hypothetical and into reality in the next year. And we’ll be taking a closer look at these problems in a follow-up article as we explore what e-schools will look like during the “claw back era.”