Md. Republican Lawmaker Seeks to Create a Statewide Virtual Public School

House Minority Whip Kathy Szeliga (R-Baltimore County). Photo by Danielle E. Gaines.

As Maryland students begin to slowly trickle back into classrooms this month, one state lawmaker is trying to establish a statewide virtual public school in Maryland.

House Minority Whip Kathy Szeliga (R-Baltimore County) presented a bill that would allow local school boards or higher education institutions to establish a full-time virtual public school without approval from the state superintendent of schools.

“While many students do not prefer virtual learning, there are some students and families that are truly thriving under this system of learning,” Szeliga said to the House Ways and Means Committee on Wednesday. “The ability to reach students in a home and hospital program effectively through online learning is exceptional. The possibilities for special needs students are also phenomenal.”

This proposed virtual public school would be exempt from some state regulations on curriculum, professional development, textbooks and attendance. Currently, local school boards can establish a virtual school that is not statewide.

“This is not a charter school, it’s a public school option for virtual learning,” Szeliga emphasized.

Mickey Revenaugh, the co-founder of Connections Academy, asserted that there was no statistical difference in student performance on state math and reading tests when students are learning in brick and mortar schools versus remotely.

A few lawmakers asked for the data behind that finding. “That data is not exactly consistent with some other data that I’ve seen in the past,” Del. Michele Guyton (D-Baltimore County) said. “I know there are different ways of doing research and different ways of funding it, so I’d like more information about that.”

Del. Kevin B. Hornberger (R-Cecil) asked why this bill was necessary if students are currently starting to move back into classrooms.

The measure would help those who have been thriving in this virtual learning environment and even improve it by creating a structured virtual program, which was evidently lacking during emergency remote schooling at the onset of the pandemic, Revenaugh said.

In January, Republican delegates, including Szeliga, expressed their frustration by students’ slow return to in-person learning and some presented legislation that they hoped would expedite that.

“We join with the parents, children and Governor Hogan and demand that the teachers union and school boards across our state, move forward with reopening plans, the excuses must stop,” Szeliga had said in a January press conference. “Many are falling behind; their mental health is declining in isolation.”

Multiple parents testified Wednesday to laud their children’s experience with virtual schools, which helped one escape bullying and gave some special needs students more schedule flexibility for things such as doctor appointments.

Amy Sparks said she pulled her children out of the public school system because of bullying. Her daughter, who has ADHD, was behind in reading but she returned to grade level through Pearson Online Academy and graduated with scholarships, Sparks said

A parent in Howard County named Catherine Carter said that her son, Atticus, was diagnosed with double vision, which caused headaches and nausea. Carter placed her son in a “home and hospital” program designed to provide instruction to students with a temporary disability. However, students only receive 6 instructional hours a week in this program, she said.

Carter had to purchase audio books and computers to accommodate her son’s learning needs with her own money. “I wish [virtual public school] had been an option when Atticus was in ‘home and hospital,’” she said.

“The educational system unintentionally abandons those who do not thrive in the set format that’s provided, simply by a failure to expand varied alternatives,” Jane St. Pierre, a teacher from Louisiana, said. “We have to intentionally provide options that meet different learning styles and different needs of students.”

But Del. Eric D. Ebersole (D-Baltimore County) questioned whether these virtual public schools could exclude certain state academic requirements that other public schools have to abide to.

“I’d like to see more of what that structure would actually look like,” Guyton echoed. “I would also want any public school in Maryland to be under the same jurisdictional oversight as the other public schools, and I don’t believe that’s how this bill is written.”

Dayana Bergman, a parent in Baltimore County, also said she was concerned about a legislation that had no state oversight for certain education instruction. Already, virtual learning options are available, such as the home and hospital program and homeschooling, she continued. “I just don’t understand how we could have state dollars with no oversight,” she said

The intention of the measure is to exempt virtual schools from certain face to face requirements and allow slight tailoring while complying with the state curriculum, special education and other requirements for public schools, Revenaugh said.

It would ultimately be up to the local districts or the state to decide whether to leave in certain state requirements for virtual schools seeking approval to operate in Maryland, Szeliga said.

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