The potential of K-12 online learning can't be realized unless we change how we govern education.
If policymakers want to see more rapid technological innovation in K-12 education—innovation that works to the clear benefit of students—they will need to take a hard look at how the public education system has managed to forestall innovation for so many years. They will need to consider how that system is structured, governed, and controlled.
It seems inevitable that technology and online learning will play a sizable role in public schools. But without the driving force of competition, this could be a long time coming. At present, online education plays a tiny role in K-12 education. In 2010-11, roughly 250,000 public school students were involved in full-time online education, nearly all through virtual charter schools, not through the regular public school systems. That is 0.45 percent of public school enrollments. Millions more have “computers in their classrooms,” of course, but true “blended” schnoools can be counted on one’s fingers.
Why so slow? Resistance to technological innovation is abetted by one feature of the current public education system, above all others. That is the almost exclusive authority (charter schools being a crucial exception) granted to local school districts to determine how students are educated. School districts have the monopolistic right to determine which schools students attend, what curricula they receive, and how much access they are provided to online education. School districts are disciplined by the political process—school-board elections and decision-making—but those politics are notoriously vulnerable to pressures from vested interests, in favor of the status quo.
States need to reclaim that authority. My new paper, “Overcoming the Governance Challenge in K-12 Online Learning,” provides a detailed analysis of why this is necessary and how to make it a reality. The following ten steps, drawn from that work, offer state policymakers a brief overview of a politically viable and educationally transformative program to govern and finance a vibrant public market in online education.
Step 1: Set K-12 Online-Learning Policy at the State Level
States should take primary responsibility for creating the system that will govern and finance online public education. Districts simply cannot handle this role. Politics makes the role even less tenable. Districts will naturally object to the loss of control. But they should be able competitors in a system where students and families can choose among various online providers. The state is not taking students and resources away from school districts; rather, the state is creating a system that asks districts to earn the allegiance of students rather than being guaranteed it.
Step 2: Create a Public Market for K-12 Online Learning
Notwithstanding the political forces that will surely push back, states should set policies for online learning that promote the development of a competitive market. Policies should encourage widespread student participation in online programs, attract multiple providers of online content and instruction, and provide ample funding to reward private investment in better products and services. Crucially, policies should not discriminate between for-profit and non-profit providers. Online education offers policymakers an opportunity to channel the beneficial forces of the marketplace into education in a practical and powerful way—more than is possible in brick-and-mortar education.
Step 3: Provide Students the Right to Choose Online Learning Full Time
States should give students the right to choose online instruction as a full-time source of their public education. Families should be guaranteed specifically the right to choose any full-time virtual school in the state, whether operated as a charter or run directly by a state agency. States should not limit the choice of full-time schools to those based in one’s home district (as Massachusetts has effectively done) or contiguous counties (as California has done). These restrictions on choice serve no educational value and limit the development of vigorous markets.
Step 4: Provide Students the Right to Choose Online Learning Part Time
While the full-time online schooling model has generated massive political resistance and heated controversy, its revolutionary potential pales when compared with a part-time model. To date, however, states have been more willing to give students the right to choose alternative education full time—brick-and-mortar and virtual charter schools—than part time. But without the part-time option, most students will not have access, and the traditional system will not face sufficient pressure to innovate.
Step 5: Encourage Statewide Online Charter Schools, Overseen by Statewide Charter Authorizers
A proven vehicle for making available multiple alternative providers of public education is the public charter school. Online charters should be authorized according to the best practices that have emerged through practical experience with brick-and-mortar charter schools. State policies are also needed to strengthen charter laws—especially helping them generate more effective competition. The market should determine the number of schools in a state and their most effective size: No limits should be placed on student enrollment or the number of full-time online charters. At the same time, such schools must assume full responsibility for students who declare them their base school, or school of record. States should also provide for multiple authorizers of online charter schools.
Step 6: License Supplementary Online Providers
States should expand the responsibility of charter authorizers to include oversight of part-time online providers. Such authorizers would be charged with approving, supervising, and renewing the operating permits of all part-time providers not otherwise approved by the state. They would not, however, have to approve online courses offered across district lines by school districts or colleges and universities otherwise eligible to provide courses to public school students for credit.
Step 7: Fund All Learning Opportunities Equally Per Pupil
In designing a funding system to accommodate online learning, states should aim to allow all dollars (local, state, and federal) to follow the student. Funding should be neutral with respect to where and how the student receives equivalent education value, which in turn should be measured by education outcomes and not in education inputs. If a student passes a class taught fully online, the provider should be paid the same as if the student earned the credit in a traditional classroom.
Step 8: Exempt Online and Blended Teaching from Traditional Teacher Requirements Including Certification and Class Size
If flexibility is not built in from the outset, teacher HR practices and collective-bargaining agreements could easily stifle innovation in online learning. States can ensure flexibility by lifting class-size restrictions on online courses. Policymakers should also avoid needless restrictions on teacher credentials. Teachers working fully online should not be required to hold traditional state certifications.
Step 9: Establish Student Learning as the Foundation of Accountability for Online Schools and Providers
At this point, neither experts nor policymakers are in a position to say just how future schooling should be organized to best deploy teachers and technology. So, policymakers ought to encourage a market-based system that will promote experimentation and innovation—in pursuit of student learning. To ensure that the market makes learning its top priority, states should carefully specify their goals for student achievement and measure how well students, schools, and other education providers are achieving them.
Step 10: Address Market Imperfections by Providing Abundant Information to Students, Families, Schools, and Districts
No market is perfect and policymakers must therefore stand ready to correct market imperfections that may arise. The most powerful tool that regulators have to help the market do its work is information. The better informed parents and students are about their choices in online learning, the more likely they are to choose quality providers and online schools. As part of their online policies, states should have transparency requirements and should expand state report cards to include licensed online providers as well as online charter schools.
Taking Resistance Seriously
Technological innovation, new approaches to teaching and learning, and higher levels of achievement will not come to public education—at least not any time soon—without reforms that break down the system’s inherent resistance to disruptive change. The surest way to do this is to shift control of K-12 online learning away from political powers that oppose a market-based system of control and instead allow the most effective solutions to emerge via competition. The market is no panacea. It will require close government oversight. But it will also provide incentives for innovation and improvement that the current system of governance never will.
John E. Chubb is a distinguished visiting fellow at the Hoover Institution and a member of Hoover’s Koret Task Force on K–12 Education, as well as a founder and chief executive officer of Leeds Global Partners.
 John Watson et al., Keeping Pace with K-12 Online Learning: A Review of Policy and Practice (Durango, CO: Evergreen Learning Group, 2011), 21.