End of the line for troubled Mass. virtual school

The state’s first and only virtual school is shutting down at the end of the school year, but few tears should be shed for the Greenfield-based online learning academy.

The Massachusetts Virtual Academy at Greenfield was launched in 2010 by the Greenfield School Committee, and it represented the state’s first foray into the world of all-online schools, a growing sector within education nationally that holds much promise but has also come in for harsh scrutiny because of poor results at many of its schools. The Greenfield school has struggled from the start, and students for whom virtual schooling is the best option will probably be better served by better-run online schools that the Western Mass.-based school.

Virtual schools are touted as an innovative approach to learning that harnesses the power of digital technology to educate students who, for reasons ranging from medical conditions to bullying to emotional issues, are not ideally suited to attend a traditional brick-and-mortar school building. With instructors available online to guide lessons and answer questions, virtual schools are experiencing tremendous growth nationally. The Greenfield school was opened by the city’s school committee under the terms of a 2009 state education reform law that gave districts new freedoms to innovate in how they structure and operate schools. About 470 students statewide, from kindergarten through eighth grade, are enrolled at the Greenfield school, which is run under a contract with K12 Inc., a huge for-profit national school operator.

State leaders had not anticipated, however, that a small school district such as Greenfield’s might use the law to open an online school that enrolls students from across the Commonwealth. In reaction to the school’s launch, the Legislature passed a new law late last year that authorizes virtual schools in the state but that requires approval from and monitoring by the state Board of Education, not simply a local district. Under the law, virtual schools would operate more like charter schools, with an independent board of trustees that is answerable directly to the state education department.

The Greenfield School Committee voted last week not to submit an application to continue under the new state law. Marcia Day, a member of the school committee, told the Globe that she voted against submitting a proposal because the Greenfield school would not be directly under the control of the city’s publicly elected school committee. Though her comments suggest concern that the school would no longer have the same degree of public accountability under the new law, the Greenfield school was hardly a model of transparent and open public education.

CommonWealth looked closely at the Greenfield school, in this feature story last spring and a follow-up story in November. Student growth scores at the Greenfield school were among the lowest of any school in the state and it suffered from unstable leadership and staffing. What’s more, the district’s superintendent, Susan Hollins, who spearheaded the virtual school effort, refused multiple requests to discuss the situation at the school, at one point responding with an email suggesting a reporter’s inquiries might be part of an intentional effort to undermine the school.

As with charter schools, virtual schools represent a new model in education, and well-run online schools may well have a valuable role to play in ensuring that all students have a schooling option best designed for their needs. Also as with charter schools, however, we should recognize that all virtual schools are not equal, and closing those that aren’t doing a good job is best way to promote quality in this promising new avenue in education.

                                                                    –MICHAEL JONAS

BEACON HILL

A Herald editorial argues that Tim Cahill’s ethics settlement — the former state treasurer is admitting he broke civil ethics law and paying a $100,000 fine — sends a strong message “that public officials who are willing to engage in the seamier side of ‘business as usual’ in this Commonwealth will pay a hefty price for it.” Cahill’s criminal ethics trial ended in a mistrial late last year. Globe columnist Adrian Walker says the outcome in the Cahill case was the right one.

Jeffrey Simon, the state’s federal stimulus czar, moves into a real estate post with MassDOT.

MUNICIPAL MATTERS

US Rep. John Tierney and Essex County District Attorney Jonathan Blodgett host a gun control forum in Lynn, the Item reports.

NATIONAL POLITICS/WASHINGTON

Some experts say a ban on assault weapons could affect the police and military as a diminishing civilian market could stifle weapons production and innovation.

Frank Rich looks for a GOP comeback plan amid the party’s rubble. The New York Times argues that the party is clinging to spending cuts and small government because, with hard-line social issues sure electoral losers, spending cuts are all the party has left.

President Obama selects Gina McCarthy to head the US Environmental Protection Agency. She currently leads the agency’s air and radiation division. Ernest Monitz, an MIT  physics and engineering systems professor who served in the Clinton administration, is the nominee for the top slot at the Energy Department. The head of the Walmart Foundation is named Obama’s budget chief.

ELECTIONS

State Rep. Daniel Winslow and former US attorney Michael Sullivan agreed to a debate at Stonehill College on April 1 but Cohasset businessman Gabriel Gomez has yet to commit. Winslow also called for debates in each of the state’s nine congressional districts while Sullivan’s aides said four is enough.

Boston City Councilor John Connolly continues ramping up his campaign for mayor as he sits down for the Sunday interview with Keller@Large. The Herald’s Joe Fitzgerald talks to Angela Menino.

Mitt Romney sits down with Fox News for his first post-loss interview, acknowledging what what became pretty clear four months ago: He didn’t run a great campaign. Kimberly Atkins suggests Romney volunteer for the post of Detroit’s fiscal czar. The Christian Science Monitor suggests its going to be a long slog back to political relevance for Romney.

A recount has confirmed the reelection of Mashpee Wampanoag chairman Cedric Cromwell after accusations of possible voter fraud.

Former Democratic National Convention head and Ted Kennedy aide Steve Kerrigan kicks off a campaign for lieutenant governor.

BUSINESS/ECONOMY

A study by the Federal Trade Commission finds that one in every 20 consumers has an error on their credit report serious enough to deny them credit or lower their score enough to force them to pay higher interest.

William Galston, writing on The New Republic site, outlines the big task facing the Obama administration and the federal government in getting the country’s housing finance system in order and staving off another crisis that could be even worse than the one we’re emerging from.

Corporate profits are humming, but the post-recession prosperity hasn’t translated to higher wages for employees. The findings echo the results of a 2011 study by Northeastern’s Andy Sum.

EDUCATION

State budget belt-tightening means 30,000 children from low-income families in the state are on waiting lists for preschool — the very early start at education than both Gov. Patrick and President Obama have hailed as crucial to closing achievement gaps. An early childhood educator says preschool is not a panacea, WBUR reports.

Forget MCAS: Students and teachers will soon have to cope with a new testing regime, PARCC.

HEALTH CARE

Despite a new state law designed to slow increases in health care costs, the Globe reports that medical costs are heading up.

UMass Medical School researcher Katherine Luzuriaga is involved in the successful cure of an infant born with HIV, the Telegram & Gazette reports.

Former hospital executive Paul Levy suggests in his blog that Blue Cross Blue Shield’s earnings rise along with its billing incompetence.

On his “Health Stew” blog, John McDonough wishes today’s nearly invisible Surgeon General, Regina Benjamin, would take a page from one of the country’s most noted past Surgeon General’s, C. Everett Koop, who died last week in New Hampshire, and ramp up her advocacy of public health issues.

TRANSPORTATION

Only one company bids to run the Salem-to-Boston ferry, the Salem News reports.

ENERGY/ENVIRONMENT

A new State Department study minimizes the impact of the Keystone XL pipeline, the Daily Nebraskan reports.

The National Review says the newest threat to American capitalism is environmental activist Bill McKibben and declares burning carbon is good for national security.

Stores and customers are having a tough time coming around to the switch from incandescent light bulbs to energy-efficient ones as the old style ones disappear from shelves because of the congressionally mandated phase out.

The Cape Cod Times applauds the extension of the region’s rail trail.

CRIMINAL JUSTICE

Aaron Swartz’s best friend tells her version of the federal investigation of her friend, the Atlantic reports. The New Yorker also has a piece on Swartz.

Meet the Author

Michael Jonas

Executive Editor, CommonWealth

About Michael Jonas

Michael Jonas has worked in journalism in Massachusetts since the early 1980s. Before joining the CommonWealth staff in early 2001, he was a contributing writer for the magazine for two years. His cover story in CommonWealth's Fall 1999 issue on Boston youth outreach workers was selected for a PASS (Prevention for a Safer Society) Award from the National Council on Crime and Delinquency.

Michael got his start in journalism at the Dorchester Community News, a community newspaper serving Boston's largest neighborhood, where he covered a range of urban issues. Since the late 1980s, he has been a regular contributor to the Boston Globe. For 15 years he wrote a weekly column on local politics for the Boston Sunday Globe's City Weekly section.

Michael has also worked in broadcast journalism. In 1989, he was a co-producer for "The AIDS Quarterly," a national PBS series produced by WGBH-TV in Boston, and in the early 1990s, he worked as a producer for "Our Times," a weekly magazine program on WHDH-TV (Ch. 7) in Boston.

Michael lives in Dorchester with his wife and their two daughters.

About Michael Jonas

Michael Jonas has worked in journalism in Massachusetts since the early 1980s. Before joining the CommonWealth staff in early 2001, he was a contributing writer for the magazine for two years. His cover story in CommonWealth's Fall 1999 issue on Boston youth outreach workers was selected for a PASS (Prevention for a Safer Society) Award from the National Council on Crime and Delinquency.

Michael got his start in journalism at the Dorchester Community News, a community newspaper serving Boston's largest neighborhood, where he covered a range of urban issues. Since the late 1980s, he has been a regular contributor to the Boston Globe. For 15 years he wrote a weekly column on local politics for the Boston Sunday Globe's City Weekly section.

Michael has also worked in broadcast journalism. In 1989, he was a co-producer for "The AIDS Quarterly," a national PBS series produced by WGBH-TV in Boston, and in the early 1990s, he worked as a producer for "Our Times," a weekly magazine program on WHDH-TV (Ch. 7) in Boston.

Michael lives in Dorchester with his wife and their two daughters.

MEDIA

A new report criticizes the IRS’s system for approving tax-exempt status for news organizations, the Nieman Journalism Lab reports.