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California Association of Private Postsecondary Schools

Lawmakers reject Brown’s online learning proposal

04/24/2014

Cabinet Report. April 23, 2014.

A key budget panel on Tuesday rejected Gov. Jerry Brown’s latest plan to give the K-12 independent study program a makeover and create more opportunities for students to use modern technology as part of their academic day.

The Assembly Budget Subcommittee on Education Finance also held off on endorsing Brown’s proposed funding levels for energy-saving school facility projects until tighter revenue estimates come in next month, with one member suggesting the possibility of an increase of as much as $30 million to a revolving loan account associated with the program. 

Assemblyman Al Muratsuchi, D-Torrance and chair of the panel, said the proposed changes offered by the governor to the independent study program are significant enough that they should be fully vetted as stand-alone legislation and not put through as part of budget negotiations.

“I think there have been some legitimate concerns raised about how the governor has been pushing for education policy changes and driving them through the budget process,” Muratsuchi said. “There are times when that’s appropriate and times when we do not feel it is appropriate and there should be a more in-depth discussion of the policy proposals underlying the budget trailer bill language.”

Brown drew national attention in early 2013 for his embrace of flat-rate college courses offered online and a system that would allow K-12 districts to collect state attendance funding for students enrolled in asynchronous online instruction. But questions over accountability of the K-12 system forced the governor to drop his ideas heading into final budget negotiations.

This year, Brown is looking merely to streamline the process schools must go through to convert student independent study work into “seat time” and thus state funding. One of the more onerous requirements, supporters of the proposal said, is that supervising teachers in independent study programs sign and date each assignment.

The non-partisan Legislative Analyst, in its latest review of Brown’s education budget proposal, said his ideas are generally good ones because they provide additional flexibility for school districts. But the LAO recommended expanding his proposed new “course based” independent study option  to include grades K-8 rather than just high schools, and that the student-teacher ratio cap for charter schools be increased from 25:1 to 27:1 to provide “corresponding flexibility” for charter schools.

Last year about 140,000 students relied on independent study for at least half of their coursework, according to the LAO, with about two-thirds of that coming from high schools and the remainder from the lower grades.

Independent study has become the default vehicle for many types of alternative curriculum in California – including online learning – because it provides districts some method of giving students freedom to work outside the traditional classroom and still qualify for state support.

The problem, as Brown has pointed out, is that the current independent study system was designed decades ago, before the advent of the internet. It is also saddled with a long, complex set of rules imposed on district administrators and teachers aimed at ensuring students are doing work that is aligned with state curriculum goals.

In the traditional setting, districts qualify for state funding only for the days that students are physically in school. Districts are required to offer a minimum number of classroom hours, or seat time, which vary by grade. The independent study program allows students to earn credits for work their do on their own, overseen by a teacher who is charged with certifying that the work can be translated into seat time.

But the current system for certifying work into seat time is very prescriptive and can discourage districts from offering the option given the investment required to administer the program.

Later, committee members learned that some 1,500 local educational agencies have requested and received money for energy-saving facility projects under 2012’s Proposition 39.

At the same time, however, an Assembly staff report noted that only four LEAs have been approved to receive their energy efficient project grants. The California Energy Committee is now processing an additional 21 expenditure plans for projects totaling $13.5 million.

Also known as the California Clean Energy Jobs Act, Proposition 39 created a new revenue stream by changing the options for how multistate businesses determined their California taxable income. It was estimated that the measure would bring in about $1 billion annually, to be split between the state’s General Fund and the Clean Energy Job Creation Fund to pay for energy-efficiency upgrades in schools.

The governor’s January budget, however, predicted $101 million less in Prop. 39 funding for 2014-15 due to lower projected tax revenues than assumed in the 2013-14 budget.

Instead, $726 million is expected for the Energy Fund in '14-15, with $316 million going to K-12 schools and $39 million to community colleges for energy efficiency project grants.

The governor also proposes $5 million to the Conservation Crops for technical assistance to K-12 districts, and $3 million to the Workforce Investment Board for job training programs.

Brown proposed no additional money for the fourth program created under the Energy Fund – a revolving loan account run by the state’s Energy Commission to also help schools fund energy efficient projects.

Since the implementation of the Prop. 39 program, CEC reports that it has received 28 applications totaling $50.2 million for the loan program.

Assemblywoman Nancy Skinner, partly responsible for the Prop. 39 ballot measure and legislation, said that it is likely districts need these types of loans to leverage existing funding and that the legislature should perhaps consider an additional allocation of as much as $30 million given the need shown by LEAs.