Last-ditch legislative effort fails to save virtual school

Friday, April 17, 2015, Vol. 39, No. 16

NASHVILLE (AP) - A last-minute legislative maneuver to allow a troubled virtual school to remain open has failed.

The Tennessee Virtual Academy has been ordered closed because of failing scores. Republican Sen. Frank Niceley of Strawberry Plains asked the full Senate floor to consider an amendment to an unrelated bill that would allow the school to stay open if it showed enough improvement.

The amendment failed and Niceley was criticized by some lawmakers for trying to circumvent the Legislature's committee system.

Kids stay home and do work on their computers at the school.

Niceley had argued that the school serves medically fragile and bullied kids who don't do well at traditional public school.

"These are the ones that have dropped out of the public schools," Niceley said. He had argued that all his amendment would do would give the school a chance if it improved.

The school has been ranked among the lowest perfor ming schools in the state since it opened in 2011, scoring a level 1 on a 5-point grade system where 1 is the worst and 5 is the best.

Last year former Education Commissioner Kevin Huffman ordered the school closed unless it could bring itself up to a level 3. Current Education Commissioner Candice McQueen stood by Huffman's decision.

Nicely's amendment would have allowed the school to stay open if it reached a level 2 by the end of the current school year. He had argued that the school is making the fastest gains of any other in the state and that there are 125 failing traditional brick-and-mortar schools in Tennessee that are not being ordered to shut down.

But Republican Senate Education Chairwoman Dolores Gresham of Somerville said the state has already spent $43 million on the failing school.

She said the school had been ranked dead last in the state for three years in terms of academic gains and now it's the 35th worst in the state.

"Fairn ess, compassion and common sense will tell you that these children are not being served well," Gresham said.

Some lawmakers criticized Niceley for trying to attach the amendment to an unrelated bill in the waning days of the legislative session instead of doing it through a committee.

"I just don't think that's the way we should do business," Sen. John Stevens, R-Huntingdon, said of the maneuver.

Nicely said it was a last-ditch effort on behalf of the kids who needed the school.

The school is operated by the Union County public school district, but any student in the state can enroll. Union County contracts with K12 Inc., a Virginia-based for-profit corporation, to provide the school curriculum. K12, which is the nation's leading provider of online schools, has made an intense lobbying effort to keep the school open.