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Brown’s K-12 online agenda faces legislative scrutiny


SIA CABINET REPORT. APRIL 2, 2013.  Gov. Jerry Brown drew national attention earlier this year with his embrace of online learning programs and technology-based instruction – both within higher education and K-12 schools.

While his digital initiatives continue to enjoy significant support, his plan to rewrite the rules surrounding independent study and allow school districts to collect state attendance funding for asynchronous online instruction may be facing challenges in the Legislature.

The first round of hearings on the proposals generated a lot of questions and concerns about exactly how the funding would work, how academic progress would be measured and how the state and schools would meet a very short-time frame for implementation.

Perhaps most important, however, are the concerns lawmakers have over ensuring online learning will be held to the same high standards of those imposed in traditional classrooms.

“We are holding our physical schools accountable and we are interested in getting more concrete accountability on the independent study side,” said Assemblywoman Susan Bonilla, D-Concord, chair of the budget subcommittee overseeing school finance.

“We need some way of knowing if these classes are working or not,” she said. “Throwing money at technology without accountability is not going to ensure the best possible outcomes for students.”

California schools have long lagged behind other states in seeking the benefits that digital learning programs offer – including flexibility of instruction and delivery costs.

Brown surprised many in January with his proposal to make online programs a big part of the university system, including a partnership between the California State University system and an online education firm that would offer basic skills courses in the coming semester at a flat rate of $150 per class.

But Brown also proposed a landmark shift in how the state would support online leaning at the district level. Currently, most online programs are considered independent study for purposes of state funding, which creates a big financial disincentive to schools because of an array of rules and requirements.

Legislation passed last year allows districts, beginning with the 2014-15 school year, to claim for funding purposes the attendance of students enrolled in online courses as long as a teacher is also simultaneously present.

Brown’s plan takes that a step further and would allow asynchronous online instruction – meaning the student and teacher would not have to be sharing the same time element.

The governor, who made the online proposal part of his January budget plan, would also refine the existing independent study agreement between the student and instructor to focus on specific measureable outcomes. Further, the governor would make state funding for the online instruction contingent on the student meeting the proficiency goal.

A hearing late last month before Bonilla’s subcommittee generated a number of issues – many of which were shared by both the nonpartisan Legislative Analyst and the California Department of Education.

Although legislators continue to talk to the administration about the governor’s K-12 online agenda – along with the CDE and the LAO – there are clear signs Brown might be asked to drop these ideas from the budget and reroute the proposal as a stand-alone bill.

One of the major issues is with the plan’s timing. The governor has said he wants to implement all the proposed changes by July 1, 2013. The CDE says that’s not enough time for the state or local districts to comply.

The LAO has suggested the Legislature use 2013-14 as a planning year and delay full implementation until 2014-15.

There are also concerns that the proposal as written doesn’t go far enough in linking student study with state content standards.

The LAO has said the funding under the governor’s plan is only contingent on student participation – not explicitly linked to learning outcomes. The governor’s plan would also allow local districts to define satisfactory academic process, raising questions about how the state could ensure a high quality of instruction.

Finally, there’s concern that the governor’s proposal does not have a specific formula for determining how participation equates into funding, especially as it relates to compensating districts for students who enroll in the new independent study program part time.

One group firmly behind the governor’s plan as proposed is the California Charter Schools Association, which represents 237 non-classroom based charters out of the 1,065 charters statewide.

Myrna Castrejón, senior vice president of government affairs for the charter association, said she associates Brown’s plan to make independent study and online learning more flexible with the governor’s ambitions to return to local districts most spending decisions over their education budgets, as outlined in his Local Control Funding Formula.

“We’ve seen this governor be very proactive and consistent in assuring that student needs get addressed in as varied and as robust a way as possible in order to meet the students where they are,” she said.

She noted the pace and variety of online instruction being used in traditional classrooms as well as non-traditional settings is quickly blurring the lines of bureaucratic oversight.

“The further you are out on the ledge of innovation the more difficult it is to then make them fit into the current policy construct on how these schools are treated,” she said. “So we very much welcome the governor’s initiative.”