A few answers but lots more questions about COOLs
Amongst many questions about the virtual schools bill that’s going through Select Committee at the moment, two big ones are about how they’ll be funded and how enrolments will work. These aren’t clear from the legislation; enrolments seems to be open access with the restriction of yet to be determined accreditation criteria, and funding is simply ‘allowed’ by Ministerial decision.
So it was helpful to receive a bunch of papers from the Ministry of Education (attached) a few weeks ago which showed a bit more of their thinking (though it’s a shame that they didn’t put them up with the Bill in the first instance).
Funding and fees
While there is still very little detail on this it seems that:
- COOLs that are state schools or charter schools will be fully publicly funded and unable to charge fees to students.
- COOLs that are private organisations or tertiary institutions won’t be fully funded and will be able to charge fees.
- We don’t know whether ‘fully funded’ means at the same level as a face-to-face school or less – some papers point out that the costs are different for delivering online and face-to-face learning.
- We also don’t know whether private COOLs will be funded at the same level as private schools now (around 20% of what public schools get) or the same level as tertiary institutions (around 40-50% of costs) or some other level.
- It does seem clear that the current ‘double up’ of funding that exists when a student is enrolled at a face-to-face school but then does a supplementary course through Te Kura will be gone. This will make it far less attractive for small schools to access supplementary courses, as every student enrolled will cost them money.
- Of course, we also don’t know whether there’s any new money that will be dedicated to this. I’m not holding my breath, as the papers that have gone through Cabinet don’t make any commitments.
Something that wasn’t clear initially, but appears to be what officials are thinking now, is that enrolments in COOLs that are private or run by tertiary institutions won’t be open access at all – the providers will be able to select their students.
This has pros and cons.
On one hand’ they’re more likely to select students who are likely to be successful in an online learning environment, so the ‘off –ramp’ risk for disengaged students is diminished. The downside of this is the equity risk, creating selective schools with higher proportions of ‘high achievers’ and non-selective schools with everyone else is a likely to lead to worse outcomes overall in the long run.
For a Minister who has spoken so much about increasing the achievement of students in our ‘long tail of underachievement’ this is a policy which seems very likely to at best do nothing for it, and at worst grow the ‘tail’ even more.
The other point about enrolment that’s still not clear is how the accreditation process will ensure that students who are at risk of not achieving in an online environment won’t be able to enrol. The Minister can put criteria for enrolment onto COOLs, and the obvious ones are things like the age range that a COOL can enrol, or the types of subjects and courses they can enrol people for. David Seymour’s solution would probably be, don’t put extra restrictions on, just shut them down if they don’t meet the achievement goals and in the meanwhile ‘caveat emptor’. I doubt that many in the MoE would be this cavalier, but it’s not clear what they’re proposing instead. There is some talk in the Ministry papers about essentially having something similar to the ‘gateways’ that currently exist for students wanting to enrol at Te Kura, to me this seems like the best option, but it then begs the question of what this massive change to the Act is about.
Something else that the MoE documents show is that their thinking on the use of registered teachers changed during the policy development process. As late as June the Ministry said that one of the important protections for students in online schools was that they “will be required to employ registered teachers”, and that this would “help to ensure that teaching provision is successful in engaging students”.
A month later the papers show the Minister signed off that “organisations that are not currently required to employ registered teachers will not be required in the Act to employ registered teachers…” The reason for this: to ensure that a wider number of providers can get in on the COOL action. So a critical protection for students was watered down to get more competition in the ‘market’.