Digital Learning in Utah: Devil is in the Details

Can school districts be vehicles for introducing a choice-based system of digital education?  In Utah, the state legislature has enacted a law that allows any district or charter school to offer online courses to students throughout the state—and pocket a reasonable share of the state aid that comes with every student enrolled.  In principle, a wide variety of providers are competing for the attention and loyalty of students throughout the state.  Ever higher-quality courses will soon be offered, as districts and charters join forces with online providers to create better courses than those offered by the competition.  But that dream may not come true unless various aspects of the law are re-thought.

The program took effect only in July 2011, and the Utah legislature is still tinkering with the specifics of the law, so it is too soon to draw firm conclusions.  However, early signs indicate that choices between online and brick-and-mortar courses will be limited to offerings within the student’s home school district.  Statewide competition may well be more the exception than the rule.

The program is designed to grow at a measured pace.  In the current school year, students may take 2 of their 8 credits online, with that number increasing by one each year until, in 2016-17, students may take three-fourths of their coursework online.  Such measured step-taking is not to be faulted, as it takes time to develop high-quality content and to put systems in place.  Still, it will be at least 5 years before the full impact of the Utah initiative can be assessed.

Keep in mind that digital learning is still but a speck on the public school horizon.  As of October 2011, nearly 550,000 pupils were enrolled in public schools in Utah.  But only one percent of that number–less than 6,000 students—has received credit for courses taken from the state-run Utah Electronic High School.  A harbinger of what may happen under the new program, course-taking at Electronic High has been hampered by state rules. To be eligible, students must be homeschoolers or seeking credit recovery (for courses which they failed or from which they withdrew)—unless guidance counselors at their home schools agree to include online courses in their education plan.

In principle, the new law opens the door to many more statewide providers in addition to Electronic High.  But in the first year of its operation, fewer than 200 students were enrolled in an online course offered by a provider outside their home districts.  Applications from close to one hundred additional students were rejected, mainly on the grounds that the online course had already begun or the student was trying to speed up their high school graduation by adding courses to the eight regarded as full-time load.

While any high school student is eligible to take two courses online, students enrolled in online courses may not earn more credits than those earned by students who take a full course load at a district school—unless they plan to graduate early according to their plan of study, which must be approved by the student’s guidance counselor. That is an unduly restrictive rule.  One of the most promising features of online education is that it can allow students to move forward at their own pace, not in lock-step with all the other students.  By expecting courses to start at the beginning of the school year, and by not allowing students to enroll in extra courses, Utah has placed an unnecessary barrier on the innovation. And by making district-paid guidance counselors the gatekeepers to digital education, the state has set up a barrier to student choice, even though the law says that guidance counselors cannot restrict the student’s selection of online courses.

Funding levels also seem to be designed more for the purpose of protecting school district revenues than encouraging the creation of exciting courses. Per pupil funding at Utah district schools is hardly generous—just short of $8,000 a year (as compared to a national average that runs close to $12,000 annually).  State funding for students attending charter schools is just 70 percent of the district level—less than $5700 per pupil annually. Online courses have been funded at about the charter school level—$726 per full-year course or $363 per term.  But if an amendment recently passed by the state legislature is signed into law by the governor, only language arts, math and science courses will be funded close to this level (at $350 per term).

Lighter-weight courses—health, fitness for life, computer literacy, financial literacy, and driver’s education—will be funded at $200 per term. That would be reasonable if academic courses were funded at a higher rate and the same rule were applied to brick-and-mortar schools.   But when funding for lightweight digital courses is tightened to the extreme, it removes the ballast that digital providers need to mount the poorly funded heavyweight courses. The point is non-trivial, as lightweight courses are among the most popular online options. Many students see little point in wasting their time in classrooms, day after day, just to learn how to balance their checkbook or take care of their acne.  The highly regarded Florida Virtual School relies on the revenue from such courses to provide expensive, high-quality academic courses. That option is being taken off the table in Utah.

It is nice that districts will receive about 25 percent of the revenue for courses that are being offered online instead of at their schools, as they have fixed costs that are ongoing regardless of whether a student takes 6 or 8 courses from them.  And one understands that states, strapped for cash, must search for ways to save their dollars.  But starving the digital baby is hardly the way to motivate the design of high-quality courses.

The demand for online learning is surely higher than indicated by the fact that only 200 students completed an online course outside their district in the first year of the new program. Within school districts themselves, online course enrollments are already over 5,000, a sign that students are being channeled into home-district offerings.  If this trend continues, local districts will be offering online courses to their own students—and hardly anyone else. A statewide market needs statewide promotion of alternatives.  But the risk is great that districts will implicitly sign a no-raid pact by not advertising their wares outside their own district. That way each district captures its traditional share of the revenue. It will take an energetic student or parent to secure that out-of-district placement, if guidance counselors, while obeying the letter of the law, nonetheless steer students toward the home-grown option.

One can only speculate at this early stage.  But there seems to be a shadow falling between the Utah rhetoric and the Utah reality.  On the surface, the Utah digital legislation is pathbreaking.  It seems to create multiple new choices for students and families.  But if online learning is going to be of the district, by the district, and for the district, the innovation is unlikely to be transformative.

-Paul E. Peterson

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