Next step for online initiativePositive fiscal analysis to help the cause
With a formal title and a favorable fiscal analysis in hand, backers of an initiative to broaden access to online college preparatory classes will begin gathering signatures today to qualify for the November ballot.
The proposed initiative would give students the right to go elsewhere for a course required for admission to a UC or CSU campus if their school doesn’t offer it. While they could drive to a nearby district, they also could take the course online. It would establish a California Diploma, which would be awarded when a student completed the 15 required courses, known as A-G.
The initiative, which promoters are calling the California Student Bill of Rights, would remove some of the state’s significant regulatory and geographic restrictions to online courses. It could affect tens of thousands of high school students who might not have access to all A to G courses.*
Since students could turn to a charter school, a college, or a for-profit online provider for a course, critics had surmised that the initiative would drain school districts of some of their state funding. But the Legislative Analyst’s Office and the Department of Finance, in a four-page analysis concluded that the initiative in the long run would create “savings potentially in the hundreds of millions of dollars annually” for local school districts “if schools experience efficiencies and widespread participation in the use of online courses.”
“This is what we believe, and they (the LAO and state analysts) saw some of the same cost savings from efficiencies,” said David Haglund, principal of Riverside Virtual School, the largest district-run online school in the state, and chair of Education Forward, the group sponsoring the initiative.
Haglund predicts that, rather than lose tuition money, districts would respond by offering their own online courses and by creating interdistrict compacts to share curriculums, course monitors, and labs for courses needing them, for example. Rather than offer Chinese or AP Physics for a handful of students in a high school, the district might offer them online to a few dozen from several high schools.
The initiative wouldn’t wouldn’t override teachers contracts’ limits on class sizes for various subjects. Details on course payments would be left to follow-up legislation, state regulations, or negotiations between districts and vendors or other districts. The initiative also wouldn’t offer a universal right for students to shop around; it would allow them to pursue courses not offered by their own district – an important distinction, Haglund said.
Update: Edgar Cabral, the LAO education analyst who did the fiscal analysis, doesn’t disagree with Haglund on that point, but notes that the initiative does not define what a student’s “unrestricted access” to an A-G course would entail. For example, would a student with a scheduling conflict for AP chemistry have the right to pursue an online course elsewhere, or could a school tell the student to try again next year? Could the district limit the student’s course choice to a district or vendor with which it has partnership? Or could the student choose any qualifying online course? The initiative leaves it to the Legislature or State Department of Education to spell out how course providers would be reimbursed.
Quality controls would also prevent students from enrolling in courses offered by fly-by-night vendors or poor-quality schools.
- Local districts would have to certify that the course meets A-G requirements;
- It would have to be taught by a teacher with an “appropriate” subject matter credential. It would have to be taught by a teacher with an “appropriate” subject matter credential. While not specifying a California credential, districts and teachers unions could argue that one would be required, as with other teachers in bricks and mortar classroom, since the initiative creates parity between online and traditional schools;
- The student and parent must consent to the course;
- A teacher must be available to answer students’ questions, provide information, and make assignments.
Attorney General Kamala Harris didn’t buy the sponsors’ preferred “Bill of Rights” title. Instead, it will appear on the ballot as the “Online K-12 Education, College Preparatory Courses Initiative.”
But the positive fiscal analysis will make it easier raise money for signature gathering and the more expensive campaign for passage, Haglund said. His group has oral commitments for $500,000 of the $2 million needed to collect 504,000 verified voter signatures, he said. Donors will start identifying themselves in coming weeks; many of the backers are expected to be from Silicon Valley.
Haglund sees the initiative as the basis for a flourishing of online and “blended learning,” which integrates online learning and a traditional classroom. The next step, requiring regulations or statutory changes, would grant course completion – and funding for it – based on proof of proficiency, not the traditional completion or “seat” time.
Other key leaders behind the initiative are Haglund’s boss, Rick Miller, superintendent of Riverside Unified School District; Gordon Freedman, former Vice President, Global Education Strategy at the education technology company Blackboard, Inc.; Bill Fowler, who retired last year after leading Cisco Systems’ Global Education Group; and Bill Erlendson, who retired last year after serving as assistant superintendent of San Jose Unified.
* It’s not clear how many students would benefit from the initiative. Haglund estimates 40 percent of students lack access to the full range of A-G courses based on estimates by UCLA’s Institute for Democracy, Education and Access. But that figure, while hard to pin down, is likely overstated. See comments in an earlier post on the initiative.