State ADA restrictions impedes progress of online learning

For years the promise of digital learning has languished almost on the outskirts of California's public schools, but now there are signs of change as stakeholders confront longstanding barriers.

A task force that would perform a badly-needed update of the state's Education Technology Plan is being organized by state schools chief Tom Torlakson. Meanwhile, a key coalition representing school managers has put together an agenda of guiding principles for the next steps in digital learning.

And lawmakers preparing to reconvene in January are working on perhaps a dozen bills relating to digital learning - some of which are looking for cheaper ways of providing new instructional materials and assessments tied to the common core.

But one big hurdle standing in the way, insiders say, is the state's primary method for funding schools - based on average daily attendance - a system that is not easily adapted to instruction where the teacher and student are not only in different places but also, often not even sharing the same element of time.

There has always been some concern that districts would find a way to inflate their ADA through online learning," said Mike Kilbourn, a veteran legislative advocate for schools with a long history with online learning legislation that dates back to the Davis administration.

"There's also been concerns about whether the students were actually the one doing the work," he said. "We thought we had those issues addressed in the original bill - but anytime the teacher doesn't have visual contact with the student, that's been a problem."

While other states have forged ahead into the world of digital learning, California as a whole continues to lag. A recent national survey by the Digital Learning Council, ranked California last on statewide policies that promote online learning.

That needs to change, said Jason Spencer, legislative representative for Superintendent Torlakson. He noted his boss's interest and experience with online issues during his years in the Legislature and said that Torlakson has since made improving opportunities for digital learning a priority for the California Department of Education.

Toward that end, the superintendent is trying to raise $250,000 to support the work of revising the state's Education Technology Plan - a document so out of date and irrelevant that many Capitol insiders are unaware of its existence.

They hope to have an initial meeting before the end of the year but they would need a year or 18 months to complete the project.

"We see this as an opportunity to coalesce and bring those conversations together," he explained. "We'd like to be moving in a unified front as opposed to continuing to have the one-off conversations we've been having."

In an effort to get out ahead of Torlakson's study group, the Education Management Group came together this fall to develop a broad policy brief describing seven key principles they would support around online and digital learning.

The group includes among its members many of the state's largest school districts as well as statewide organizations representing school boards, administrators, business officers and county superintendents.

Among the agreed upon principles is the notion that students learn in different ways and the state should provide options from the traditional classroom to fully online instruction and a blend of the two.

There's agreement that online learning should be held to the same standards of accountability as classroom instruction. They also support giving local officials flexibility in how online programs are implemented and regulated.

Jeff Frost, a legislative advocate for schools and one of the architects of the management group's brief, said that unlike many other states California does not really have a plan to guide digital and online learning.

"Most other states use their plan as the foundation for building policy," he explained. "It's similar to our master plan for higher education - everyone goes back to the master plan if there's a question about how or where to proceed."

The idea, he said, was to provide some early guidance to the superintendent and the CDE as work on the plan's update got underway.

One key request from the management group is that the state should create a new funding mechanism to account for online learning programs.

Last summer there was some hope for a funding issue fix with legislation authored by Assemblyman Bob Blumenfield, D-Van Nuys. The bill, which ultimately failed to get out of committee, would have called for the creation of a streamlined accounting process with new verification checks for online programs.

Barrett Snider, Director of Governmental and Public Affairs at School Innovations & Advocacy, (SI&A is corporate host to the Cabinet Report), who helped write and shepherd the Blumenfield bill along said resolving the funding issue is key to making progress in the online arena.

"You can fix all kinds of other issues around digital learning - you can get all the equipment and all the professional development you might want, but no one is going to offer the course if you can't figure out how to pay for it," he said.

There are many other states that have solved the accountability problems with online instruction.

Florida, for instance, uses a method that withholds funding unless or until a student successfully passes an online learning course. In Utah, half of the per pupil funding is paid to the online learning provider when a student enrolls and half when the course is completed.

But Snider and others point out that California's system is almost unique nationally in that schools are funded based on a teacher or administrator visually ensuring that a student is in a seat in a classroom.

Independent study is an option, but many districts find dealing with the enormous paperwork required to meet auditing mandates is too much.

Despite the challenges posed by California school funding formulas, there seems little doubt the direction education is headed.

"Something has to happen to break this loose," said Brian Bridges, director of the California Learning Resource Network - which evaluates online programs for the California Department of Education.

"Online learning is very close to the tipping point and continuing to grow at 20 or 25 percent every year - it's not going away," he said.