Ballot initiative seeks to expand access to online education

This month, Haglund, principal of the Riverside Virtual School, an online independent study program run by the Riverside Unified School District, introduced a statewide ballot initiative that would give students unrestricted access to publicly funded courses -- wherever they are.

The California Student Bill of Rights Initiative is "designed to eliminate control by ZIP code," Haglund said.

Under the proposal, schools, districts and county education offices would be required to make available to all students the courses needed for admission to the state's universities. Those courses, known as A-G requirements at the University of California and California State University, could be offered at a student's school or district of residence or any other publicly funded school, and they could be classroom-based, online or a blended model of the two.

Nearly 27 percent of California public high schools in 2007-08 offered too few A-G courses for all students to take them, according to an analysis by UCLA's Institute for Democracy, Education and Access.

"We in our public school system in California say, 'If you don't live within so many square miles of a building, you can't play,' and that's not fair," Haglund said. "And it's particularly unfair when the infrastructure and technology exists to resolve those issues."

Skeptics of the initiative say that while the proposal attempts to address real problems in education access and equity, it's not the right mechanism to do so. If passed, the initiative could send more public money to private companies, they say.

The initiative calls on the state to modify its school financing system so that average daily attendance is apportioned to the courses students complete, allowing multiple institutions to split funding for the same student. Currently, online education in California operates as independent study programs, or charter or private schools -- models that initiative supporters say limit access to virtual learning.

"The idea is if the funding is attached to courses, the schools might be more willing to investigate how to make those courses available," Haglund said.

John Rogers, director of UCLA IDEA, sees a different outcome: "Splitting up a student's ADA (average daily attendance) potentially can weaken the home institutions," he said. "When there are efforts to supplant aspects of the existing public education system with a cheaper online alternative, you're going to diminish the overall quality of public education, and you're going to exacerbate, not remedy, inequalities."

The initiative "could wreak havoc on the delivery of public education in the state," said John Affeldt, managing attorney for Public Advocates, which is representing organizations and families challenging the constitutionality of California's school funding system.

"It seems at first blush to be more about an online provider's bill of rights to get public money to provide online courses than an initiative to make sure we have equitable access to education for all kids," he said.

Haglund said, "The initiative is not designed to destroy public education."

"California as a state has pushed educational innovation into the private and charter school space. If that's where we want to go, then keep it up," he said. "But if we want our kids in public schools to have access to the same type of high-quality education they can have elsewhere, we need to switch it up."

'The Old West'

Haglund's proposal comes at a time when more students are going to school by logging on to their computers. At least 15,000 students in California are enrolled in full-time online charter schools, and more than 3,600 were enrolled at Riverside Virtual School, the largest district-run program in the state in 2009-10, according to a review by the Evergreen Education Group.

But unlike many states that have embraced -- or at least accepted -- online education, California has stayed on the sidelines.

"There is no statewide provision for online learning in California. It's all facilitated through individual districts who make up their own thing as they go along; consequently, it's like the Old West," Haglund said. "You've got everybody and their grandmother out there doing something, but nobody knows what that something is."

Lawmakers -- including state Superintendent of Public Instruction Tom Torlakson when he was a state assemblyman -- have tried repeatedly to expand access to online education through changes to ADA guidelines.

Torlakson is currently assembling an advisory board to rethink technology in the classroom and is looking to raise $250,000 to fund its work. His long-term goal is to provide every student with a digital learning device, said Jason Spencer, a legislative representative for the superintendent. Although funding online education is a piece of the puzzle, it's an issue for the Legislature to decide, he said.

Haglund and his colleagues at Education Forward, a nonprofit formed to sponsor the initiative, said they are tired of waiting.

"Is it possible for the Legislature in Sacramento to deal with this much more quickly and efficiently than this process? Yeah, absolutely," said Rick Miller, superintendent of Riverside Unified and a director at Education Forward. "But they haven't done it. It doesn't mean they can't and they won't -- they just haven't. How long should we wait?"

Miller and Haglund said they are sponsoring the initiative as individuals, not on behalf of their district. But their experience in Riverside has helped them craft some guidelines for online education.

Under the initiative, only online courses approved by UC and schools accredited by the Western Association of Schools and Colleges would be eligible for public funds. Student participation in virtual learning would be voluntary.

After it's cleared by the state for circulation -- a target date is set for next month -- the initiative will need 504,760 signatures to qualify for the November 2012 ballot. More than likely, it won't be the only online education proposal Californians see next year.

Language in the initiative could end up in legislation next year, said Jeff Frost, a lobbyist for several education organizations and school districts, including Riverside Unified. Along with other school district lobbyists, Frost has developed seven principles for online learning that he hopes will lay a foundation for state policy.

"The Department of Education, Department of Finance and key legislative staffers are skeptical that if the kid's not in a room with a teacher, they're not sure what level of learning is actually going on," Frost said. "We're working on language … to reach some kind of harmony in the issue."

That language, Frost said, will support the notion that ADA can be calculated based on student work.

"Whether they're in the virtual school's learning center or whether they're at home with their mom looking over their shoulder or whether they're in the public library -- if they're there working, that's the same as a kid who showed up in school," Frost said.

Assemblyman Bob Blumenfield, D-Van Nuys, said technology provides tools to verify that students are learning outside the classroom.

"In the traditional classroom, you can't verify if that student is looking out the window and daydreaming about something else, whereas an online class, you can. You can make sure that person's butt is in the seat when they say it's supposed to be. … The technology is out there and improving every day as we speak."

Blumenfield wrote bills this year and last to expand online education. Those efforts will be reincarnated in January as a state Senate bill, he said. Like previous legislation, it will call for proctored, in-person exams.

As for how online education should be funded, Blumenfield said he's "somewhat agnostic."

"My goal is I want to get it done," he said.

Story courtesy of our media partners at California Watch (A Project of the Center for Investigative Reporting)

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