SALT LAKE CITY — Legislation intended to create more options for students through online courses could actually end up limiting their choices and creating major logistical problems, according to state education and charter school officials.
The Education Interim Committee met Wednesday to further study the Statewide Online Education Program, which was passed during the 2011 legislative session.
The new law allows high school students statewide to enroll at no cost to their families in online classes from various online providers in addition to their standard high school classes. For every online class they take, however, they must drop one of the classes at their brick and mortar high school unless they plan to graduate early.
"What is the advantage of having them take an online course and then drop one of the other courses?" Sen. Karen Morgan, D-Salt Lake asked. "I, too, am very concerned about that and the logistics about that."
Until now, students had to pay for classes they took from any online provider other than the Utah Electronic High School.
Currently, students can take online classes in addition to their full high school schedules for free through Utah Electronic High School. At the end of next school year, however, that school could potentially lose earmarked state funds and may have to compete with other providers for funding.
Brenda Hales, associate state superintendent, said students who are on a block schedule could potentially spend half of their school day outside of class if the periods they dropped fell on the same day.
"You can see how complicated this is," Hales said.
Witnesses told the committee the changes will cause huge financial and logistical challenges to districts and charter schools, and will mean kids will have fewer choices than they do currently.
State Superintendent Larry Shumway said the State Board of Education is drafting an emergency rule to ensure districts and charter schools are aware of the new law. But in the meantime, the board is grappling with whose responsibility it is to supervise kids who are released for a period or more from their high school with nowhere to go.
"Having been a high school principal, one of the most important things ... is that everybody has a place to be," Shumway said. "This requires that a student drop a period. ... That's where this is unique and there is no precedent."
Sen. Howard Stephenson, R-Draper, is the bill's sponsor. He said he knows of parents at some schools who have been told that if their child takes an online class, the parent will be responsible for picking them up and taking them off campus during the class period they dropped.
"I guess we didn't anticipate this kind of, what appears to be, hostility," Stephenson said.
State board member David Thomas called the challenges "unintended consequences" of a bill that aims to give students and parents options.
The bill's funding formula accounts for the costs of supervision, Stephenson said. The amount of money online providers will receive per class is based on the average amount of money the state gives per high school charter student in the state, which is about $7,231 a year. Some money is shaved off the top to go directly to a student's traditional high school to cover fixed costs like counselors and facilities. The remaining amount is then divided into eight equal parts, about $730, which can be sent to either an online school or the student's traditional school per class taken.
Stephenson said the amount held back per online course, more than $200 that goes directly to brick and mortar high schools, ought to be enough for schools to provide some kind of supervision.
"It's not like we're not conscious of that and expecting them to provide that for free," he said. "(The law) leaves the districts with about $1,800 per student to cover those kinds of costs."
Stephenson's bill also brought out critics from an unlikely place: charter schools, which he has long been a proponent of.
Kim Frank with the Utah Charter Network said the bill will inevitably hurt many charter schools, which run tight ships to begin with. Steve Whitehouse, the chief financial officer of the Karl G. Maeser Preparatory Academy, said the new law will significantly impact the school's finances, since kids won't drop their regular classes until fall, when budgets have long-since been finalized.
"I needed to know six months ago when I was hiring teachers how much money I need to set aside," he said.
Whitehouse said schools like his don't have extra teachers on hand that can hold a study hall for the kids who will be out of class.
Hales said it just takes a couple of kids to drop a class in a small school to result in laying off a full-time employee.
"In a charter school, if you have five kids go out, that's a disaster," she said.
Whitehouse said his school also faces huge liability costs should high schoolers wander away from school and get hurt or get into trouble during their free period.
Judi Clark, executive director of Parents for Choice in Education said she believes the logistical challenges shouldn't outweigh the importance of students getting to choose which classes are important to them.
"There are a lot of districts and charters ... who are extremely supportive of this program and are actually pre-registering students," she said. "I think what is critical is that it puts the emphasis on the needs of the students."
When asked why students couldn't take online classes in addition to their full high school schedules, Stephenson said that would mean the state would be paying twice for the same student's education.
"To just take more courses adds an expense to taxpayers," he said.
Shumway said the board and State Office of Education are supportive of online education and the opportunities it affords both students who excel and those who need extra help. He said lawmakers should make sure they're giving kids an incentive to excel, and not stifling them.
Shumway asked lawmakers to seriously consider "whether or not we really want to start down the road of treating a high school education as though you have 32 coupons you get to redeem and when they're done you're done."
During the session, Stephenson presented the bill as a way of allowing students to take "a la carte" online classes where the funding follows the student. Opponents claimed it was a "voucher bill" since the original legislation allowed students to take online classes from private or out-of-state providers. The final legislation, however, states that only in-state, board-approved providers are eligible.
The Education Interim Committee will continue to discuss the law and how to handle the challenges throughout summer.
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