Editorial: Education officials unfairly target online schools

The Detroit News
The state Education Department should back off rules that would hamper online charter schools.

We’ve long pointed to glaring leadership gaps in Michigan education, and since state Superintendent Brian Whiston died earlier this year, staffers in the Michigan Department of Education are operating with little oversight. Some recent decisions they’ve made regarding online charter schools are misguided and could severely hamper this option for families.

New rules governing virtual charter schools were approved by the education department without taking public comment or alerting online school administrators of the coming change. The law regarding online schools has not changed, but education officials decided to interpret the law differently.

Impacted school officials are just now hearing of the rules, days ahead of the new school year. And they are very concerned about potential impacts.

The rules, included in the 2018-19 Pupil Accounting Manual, are related to the number of instructional hours a school must provide to receive full funding for a student. One of the rules stipulates that cyber schools can’t enroll a student if “at the time of enrollment, less than 1,098 hours remain” in the school’s schedule. That's the number of hours in a full school year. 

The other rule states that online schools have to ensure a student has logged on to the school’s program for the full 1,098 hours, even though some of a student’s learning takes place away from a computer — just as in a regular classroom when a teacher may have students work on a project in class.

Thirteen cyber charter schools currently exist in the state, with two new ones set to open this fall. They educate roughly 10,000 students, which is a minuscule percentage of the children in the state’s public education system.

These schools frequently serve students who have special needs, whether that be health related or academic.

The MDE’s guidelines strike at the heart of how virtual schools operate. About half of the students who enroll at an online school do so after the school year has begun. Enrollment in a virtual school is usually in response to something that’s happened at a traditional school, including bullying, or something unrelated, such as illness.

Ben DeGrow, education policy expert at the Mackinac Center, says that if the rules stand, they could “threaten the existence of unconventional education opportunities that have proved to be a lifesaver for some families.”

“They are basically telling a school they can’t help these kids,” says DeGrow.

Online school leaders say they have met with MDE officials, but have not gotten any rationale for the change or assurance that the department would work with them.

“It is problematic,” says Mary Moorman, head of school at Highpoint Virtual Academy of Michigan. “There was no explanation. It’s just a significantly different interpretation of the law that’s been in place all this time.”

Lawmakers who were involved with the original legislation expanding online charters are stepping in, and they should clarify the intent of the law.