Commentary

MDE Overreach a Serious Concern

New rules attack cyber school option for families

Bureaucrats can rely on new laws to crush innovative learning options. But they can rely on new interpretations of existing rules to do the same thing, bypassing laws that elected officials have approved. Such is the case with a new set of rules the Michigan Department of Education has released for financial auditing.

If these rules stand, they will threaten the existence of unconventional education opportunities that have proved to be a lifesaver for some families with challenging health needs, as well as for youths who struggled in the standard, one-size-fits-all system. Just one example is Success Virtual Learning Centers, a charter school that combines online and face-to-face learning to serve at-risk kids.

The department's Pupil Accounting Manual guides school auditors on how to properly count students, which goes a long way in determining the amount of funding districts and charter schools receive through the state’s foundation allowance. Two new rules in that manual spell danger for innovative schools.

Buried in the cyber school section of the manual, which affects schools like Success VLC and more than a dozen other online charter schools, is a creative reinterpretation of established law about the number of instructional hours a school must provide. The new interpretation would make operating an online charter school virtually impossible. It also clashes with language in the recent school aid budget approved by the Legislature, which says student "participation" is to be defined the same for district online programs as for cyber schools.

State law requires public schools of all types to provide a student at least 1,098 hours of scheduled instruction each year in order to get the designated foundation allowance funding on behalf of that student. The foundation allowance, the bulk of state money a school receives, is determined by the number of students physically present or active at a school on two “count days,” one in October and another in February.

The first rule says cyber schools "cannot enroll a pupil if, at the time of enrollment, less than 1,098 hours remain in the cyber school's schedule." In other words, cyber schools can only receive funding on behalf of students who enrolled very shortly after the school year begins.

But schools like Success VLC often take in new students who transfer midyear from a different school. It's bad enough that the law puts so much weight on a fall count day (it determines 90 percent of a school’s student tally), which means that most of the funding doesn’t follow these midyear transfers. But worse, under this new interpretation of the law, a student could enroll in a cyber school in time to be included on count day but still not generate any new funding for it.

The second rule is even more unreasonable. For the first time, the department says that cyber schools must log a full 1,098 hours of a student's activity online, tracked by the school's software. Time spent doing assignments away from the computer, apparently, would not count as instructional hours. But students in many cyber school programs do not complete all their learning while logged on, just like students in conventional schools do not receive instruction every minute class is in session.

Still, this rule goes beyond imposing a Procrustean standard to make cyber schools operate like brick-and-mortar schools. It also comes with harsher consequences for cyber schools.

If excessive snow days or other conditions reduce a school’s instructional hours below the legal standard, a conventional district could be docked a prorated amount of its state funding. One hour short, for example, would mean it loses roughly one one-thousandth of foundation allowance funding. Under this rule, though, cyber schools would lose all funding for all students who spent less than 1,098 hours in the online system.

To get that money back would require many months of appeals within the department. Even if some appeals ultimately succeed, the bureaucratic friction will deter unconventional programs that provide opportunities for kids who aren't served well in the current system.

Dallas Bell, superintendent of Success VLC, says he has met with many department staff members who support helping the at-risk students and families who benefit from a cyber school option. Unfortunately, though, they have been stymied by more senior-ranking bureaucrats who seem bent on trying to squeeze education back into a small, tight box.

Lawmakers should ask the department’s senior staff why they have come up with these new rules and what evidence shows that these changes are necessary and good for students. Otherwise, it would appear that the department is unfairly singling out cyber schools and burdening them with rules that threaten their very method of operation.