Legislation creating virtual schools becomes law without governor’s signature

By Erich Wagner

Gov. Martin O’Malley has allowed a bill authorizing the State Board of Education to open “virtual public schools” to go on the books without his signature because of the program’s lack of funding mechanism.

Bills in Maryland become law automatically 45 days after the end of the legislative session if the governor does not veto them, as he did a number of duplicate bills. But it is still noteworthy when a governor refuses to take a position on an issue by refraining from signing a bill.

O’Malley said in a letter to House Speaker Michael Busch that he was concerned about how the state would fund these virtual schools, which allow students to learn from an instructor over the Internet, instead of in a brick-and-mortar school. He added that the bill lacks any requirements for accountability or how teachers are to be involved in online learning.

“I support the use of online courses to meet specialized academic needs and I am open to the concept of stand-alone virtual public schools,” O’Malley said in the letter. “However, in its current posture, House Bill 1362 does not address critical components necessary to make a virtual school successful.”

State analysts estimate the bill will cost the state $53,700 in fiscal 2011 to cover the costs of developing regulations for state virtual schools. Local governments that choose to implement these schools will need to hire teachers and purchase software. Although it could cost less for a student to learn through an online program than at a physical school, analysts said, the possible influx of students currently home-schooled or at private schools could increase the state’s expenditures “substantially.”

O’Malley said he was allowing the bill to pass into law despite his concerns because the program will not go into effect until September 2011, allowing the legislature to codify virtual schools’ funding mechanism and regulations during next year’s session.

“There is ample time to address the above concerns during the 2010 Interim and develop clarifying legislation for the 2011 Session,” O’Malley said. “I will direct the Maryland State Department of Education to work with education groups to review and recommend changes to House Bill 1362 to ensure that Maryland’s virtual school law is well designed and successful.”

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