SALT LAKE CITY — School districts, charter schools and students now have the guidance they need to utilize a statewide online education program this fall, but some believe there will be serious hiccups as the program gets under way.
The new statute was adopted this legislative session and enables high school students to exchange up to two of their regular classes for online classes from a variety of vendors at no cost. Only students who intend to graduate early will be allowed to more than eight classes per year.
Lawmakers and educators are still working out kinks in the program. Last week, the State Board of Education held an emergency meeting to create a rule detailing class registration procedures.
"I think largely the state board emergency rule is effective and is appropriate," said Sen. Howard Stephenson, R-Draper, who sponsored the legislation. "It ensures that students can sign up for online courses this fall, and that was the important thing."
While the board created a framework for schools and students to follow, not all board members agree with the legislation wholesale.
Board Chairwoman Debra Roberts said the law's stipulation that students must drop a traditional high school class for every online class they take is a detriment to public education; as is the funding burden it will place on small schools that won't find out until students register this fall how many classes will be dropped.
"I think there will be instances where it will be extremely difficult and where it will cause more harm than good," Roberts said. "There's literally nothing as a state board that we can do to alleviate that."
For more than 15 years, high school students have been able to take online classes from the state-funded Utah Electronic High School in addition to their traditional high school classes. The new law allows state education dollars to flow to whatever state-approved online schools students take classes from. Students will still be able to use UEHS for the upcoming year.
One controversial topic the board chose not address in the emergency board rule is the issue of who supervises high school students who have dropped a class. The board left that up to individual districts and charters, some of which might require parents to take students off campus during their off class, while others might provide a study hall where students enrolled in online classes can go.
"The one thing that we are hoping is that local schools are not antagonistic toward students who take an online course, that they accommodate that student," Stephenson said. "I'm hopeful that schools will see online education providers as partners with them in assisting students and achieving academic success."
Stephenson attended the late-June board meeting, and said one aspect of the board's rule he is not satisfied with was the decision to name the program the "Statewide Online Public Education Program." Stephenson said the title is inconsistent with the statute, which does not include "public" in the title.
"I think that the fact that they call it something different than the statute calls it is a problem," he said.
Stephenson said changes will be made to the current funding formula, which sends more than $700 to an online provider for every class a student takes during legislative interim. A tiered formula will be created, making some online classes that require more materials more expensive, and others less expensive.
But Roberts said she would like to make more significant changes to the law, such as the removal of the stipulation that students must drop classes in order to take online courses.
"Sometimes, the (legislative) session is so short and ... sometimes we aren't able to have the in-depth conversations and the in-depth listening that needs to take place," Roberts said. "If they truly want to pursue online education ... they have got to change the statute."
Roberts said the board will also discuss and amend the rule at its August meeting, and will allow for public comment and discussion that wasn't possible in June.
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