Brown shelves K-12 online learning agenda as Senate bill moves it ahead

As Gov. Jerry Brown and legislative leaders appear to be careening this month toward a major confrontation over several parts of next year's education budget, the administration has moved to take one of its issues off the table - online learning.

But in a year when budget negotiations between fellow Democrats has been characterized by acrimony, the state Senate appears poised to move a bill that would enact key elements of the governor's K-12 technology agenda anyway.

Brown won national attention in January with his embrace of online learning programs within both higher education and K-12 schools.

Not only did he back a plan for state universities to offer basic skills courses online at a flat rate of $150 per class - Brown also called for a rewrite of the rules surrounding independent study to allow school districts to collect state attendance funding for students enrolled in asynchronous online instruction.

But because of concerns raised by the nonpartisan Legislative Analyst and the California Department of Education, the governor decided early this month to set the program aside at least until 2014-15, according to his revised May budget summary.

That move has not stopped the progress of SB 714 by state Sen. Marty Bock, D- San Diego.

His bill would allow local educational agencies to claim average daily attendance funding for high school students enrolled in asynchronous online courses.

In arguments supporting the bill, Block sounded a lot like Brown did back in January, saying that the time had come to make online learning a priority in California schools.

This new option may appeal to students for a variety of reasons; students who do not do well in traditional classroom settings, students who want to do a blended' learning approach with some classes online and others in the classroom; and students who need the flexibility in their schedules," he said. "Research supports the use of online learning beyond the (independent study) options and has shown that online and blended learning increases access, options and high quality learning opportunities for students."

Brown's January plan built on legislation passed last year that 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 would have taken a further step by allowing funding claims for asynchronous online instruction - meaning the student and teacher would not have to be sharing the same time element.

The governor would have refined 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.

Brown wanted to implement all of the changes before the beginning of the 2013-14 school year - something the CDE said would not give schools enough time.

The LAO raised questions about the accountability side of the program, pointing out that 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.

Block's bill would allow LEAs to claim funding up to 10 percent of the total average daily attendance in grades 9-12 for three consecutive years for asynchronous instruction beginning in 2015-16.

It would require districts to adopt an evaluation process to ensure that students enrolled in online learning programs are making satisfactory academic progress.

The Block bill enjoys support from a number of important interest groups including the California Association of School Business Officers and EdVoice. But SB 714 is being opposed by the California Teachers Association, which has said the proposal removes important safeguards from the instructional system.

"Current (independent study) law has a method for trying to calculate how much time was spent by the student to accomplish the coursework," the CTA said. "Students are not held to the same standard in the system proposed by this bill."

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