In Utah, new legislation has given school districts the opportunity to attract high school students from throughout the state to their online course offerings.

Any time a high school student takes a course from a district other than the one where they live, a portion of Utah’s state aid shifts from the home district to the district providing the course online.

A district with a brilliant slate of online suddenly has the chance to solve its fiscal problems the easy way.

I learned about the Utah experiment at a conference held at Stanford University’s Hoover Institution, and sponsored by Harvard’s Program on Education Policy and Governance. While the details of the Utah experiment were not discussed, the basic idea is certainly intriguing.

No longer must students in rural Utah be denied the opportunity to take physics, chemistry, computer science or an esoteric language simply because the local district cannot afford teachers for courses with small enrollments.

No longer must a student in Utah take a social studies course from a teacher the student finds boring and unhelpful.

No longer must a student who cannot attend school on a daily basis—either because he or she is sick, or pregnant, or feels bullied, or wants to train for an Olympic sport—be denied the opportunity to maintain a regular schedule that will lead to a timely graduation.

Some find the policy unfair to smaller school districts, which lack the resources to create online courses.  To keep the playing field level, they say, each district should be allowed to provide online courses only to their own students. That way state aid would continue to flow to the district bearing the expenses associated with facilities management, extracurricular activities, transportation, the school lunch program, the guidance counselors, and much more.

If only a few students take just one or two online courses, the new policy may not pose too heavy a burden, but if student demand for courses outside their own high schools escalates rapidly, the inter-district competition could prove to be seriously disruptive for some districts.

One solution would be for the state to fund online courses outside the home district at something other than the full amount—perhaps at the 50 or 60 percent level.  The remainder would go to the home district. If Utah is not doing that already, it might consider an amendment along these lines.

If small districts want to keep all of their state aid, they should be able to save on upfront costs by contracting their online courses offerings out to other providers.  Florida Virtual School is already marketing such courses nationwide, and both commercial and university providers can be expected to follow, if they are compensated for each course taken.

Of course, there could be a race to the bottom, as each district looks for the cheapest provider.  If tests are easy, some students might be tempted to take a course no matter how poorly it is constructed.

Clearly, some kind of industry or state vetting of courses is needed if online learning is not to become the latest fad to go wrong.

Exactly how Utah is solving these problems is something I plan to share with you in a future post.  For now, I simply want to herald the idea of inter-district competition in the online world.  Whatever problems it may pose for some districts, it is hard to see why district needs should be put ahead of student ones.

If digital learning is to advance beyond the pilot stage, it needs to work within the current system of public education, not against it.  Public school districts have a legitimacy unrivalled by any other institution in American education. Whether digital learning is blended into the classroom or offered online, or both, districts have to be part of the action.

The solution is to put districts into competition with one another within an overall framework that maintains course quality.  If that is done, then it will only take two or three entrepreneurial districts to convince the remainder that they need to adjust if they are to keep their students from slipping away, one by one, course by course.

I shall report later on the specifics of the Utah experiment.  For now, I simply want to herald the general concept.  Putting districts in charge of online learning, while allowing them to contract out to private providers if they wish, creates a competitive marketplace within a legitimate political framework.  If properly implemented so as to maintain course quality and integrity, it can give all students, no matter what their racial, ethnic, or religious background, no matter what their place of residence, an opportunity to take well-designed courses offered under the direction of truly high quality teachers, to be taken by students each at their own pace.

-Paul Peterson

Last updated February 9, 2012