Last week, Commissioner of the Massachusetts Department of Elementary and Secondary Education Mitchell D. Chester advised the State Board to build new restrictions into its pending set of regulations that will govern the state’s virtual innovation schools. The state defines a virtual innovation school as any school whose students receive 80 percent or more of their academic instruction online at a location other than a public school building. After soliciting public comment and meeting with educators and legislators, Commissioner Chester has decided to modify his initial regulatory proposal by imposing strict enrollment and geographic limits on virtual innovation schools. I have sent the following letter to Commissioner Chester expressing my opposition to these new limitations. The letter is also available here for download.

Dear Commissioner Chester:

You announced last week your intention to make significant changes to the proposed Regulations on Innovation Schools, 603 CMR 48.00, and I am writing to express my concern about your planned changes—specifically, the addition of new language for 603 CMR 48.05(2).

Four years ago I began working with Clayton M. Christensen, the renowned Harvard Business School professor and author of the best-selling Innovators Dilemma, to bring his well-known theories about innovation to the field of education. From our collaboration in writing Disrupting Class and from my position as executive director of education at Innosight Institute, which we co-founded, I have analyzed what works with regards to introducing disruptive innovations into education to transform and improve our public education system. Online learning is the most notable disruptive innovation with this transformational potential that we have observed to date. Through my years of research on this topic and work with Professor Christensen, I offer the following cautionary note to your proposed changes.

First, setting enrollment caps on Massachusetts’s district virtual innovation schools is short sighted. Capping enrollments at 500 students per school relegates virtual schooling in Massachusetts to a small asterisk in the state’s menu of learning options. Virtual schooling has already moved beyond the point of rogue experiment or “unproven pedagogy.” Several studies have shown that students learn as much, if not more, in online learning environments than in traditional classroom ones. With more than 450,000 students currently enrolled in full-time virtual schools nationwide, this is hardly untried or mysterious. If anything, Massachusetts is already in the position of needing to play catch up, not of serving as a timid follower.

A problem with setting the enrollment limit is that by imposing a tight lid on the opportunity, innovators have little incentive to invest time and money in building out the virtual schooling medium in Massachusetts. Without blue sky above them, why will innovators launch into this space? You state in your July 13th memo to the Board that you intend to evaluate the virtual innovation schools and decide, in time, whether to recommend a relaxing of your limitations. But by capping the opportunity from the start, you risk dooming the effort before it even leaves the ground.

Second, the proposed geographic restrictions that mandate that 25 percent of enrollment in a virtual innovation school must come from the sponsoring district and only 2 percent of students can enroll in a virtual school from any given district puts onerous restrictions on a medium designed to obliterate the limits of geography. This will unfairly penalize some students who need this option, as they will not be able to access it. Far-sighted districts, such as Greenfield, have already expressed their disappointment to these unnecessary-at-best and stifling-at-worst regulations. Fears about the potential financial impact of virtual innovation schools on districts—that, in part, led to these restrictions—are unfounded given the way Massachusetts schools are funded and given that many of these students will have not been in the public education system beforehand. These fears also focus on the wrong goal; rather than worry about who controls the education for a given student, we must support the best educational option for each individual student.

In your leadership position, you have the exciting opportunity to speak out for the watershed virtual school opportunity, rather than voice fear and defensiveness. In enacting the Act Relative to the Achievement Gap (Chapter 12 of the Acts of 2010), which provides for virtual innovation schools, the Massachusetts legislature has indicated a desire to embrace the possibilities for individualized student pacing, borderless learning, and customized instruction made possible by online learning. But with the new regulatory limits you are considering, the State Board engineers a subtle but powerful block that will, if adopted, work to stifle the innovation from its very start. Instead, there is a rich opportunity to be a partner to the districts in supporting high standards for the virtual innovation schools that escape the tired, input-focused regulations that dominate the existing public education system.

I urge you to strike these proposed enrollment and geographic limitations from your regulatory plan. By recommending them, you squelch the very innovation that Massachusetts’s legislature is seeking to ignite and is so sorely needed.


Michael B. Horn
Executive Director, Education


  • Michael B. Horn
    Michael B. Horn

    Michael B. Horn is Co-Founder, Distinguished Fellow, and Chairman at the Christensen Institute.