On Fordham’s Boards Eye View blog today, Hoover scholar John Chubb made the case that states should relieve local school boards of the authority to govern student access to the burgeoning online learning market and expose school systems to more disruptive innovations. A new analysis of virtual education trends from the Evergreen Education Group gives us more evidence that districts may be unwilling to give up their authority easily.

This year’s “Keeping Pace” report from Evergreen gives us a snapshot of online and blending learning practices and tells us that the fastest-growing segment is coming from single-district programsthose run by one district for that district’s students. While it’s satisfying to see more districts embrace digital learning programssome with the purpose to compete with state-run virtual schoolsthese are school systems that are drawing boundaries around a practice that should be boundless.

These aren’t examples of disruptive innovations. These are not all fully online programs, but rather mostly blended models that combine face-to-face learning with virtual instruction that is mostly supplemental. This is not surprising, given that districts are serving only their own students, many of whom are at-risk and take advantage of online instruction mostly for credit recovery. The self-paced, fully online multi-media instruction with one-on-one teacher support that bridges long distances is found primarily in state-run programs, not in school districts.

Even the most reform-friendly states can be unwelcoming to the disruptions to which Chubb refers.

Even the most reform-friendly states can be unwelcoming to the disruptions to which Chubb refers. Last year, the Florida Legislature considered a bill that would have allowed the Florida Virtual School and its private competitors to offer fulltime online education at all grade levels statewide. With candor and confidence, Florida Virtual School CEO Julie Young said she welcomed the competition.

But the Legislature’s own staff attorneys predictably advised against the strategy, fearing its constitutional repercussions, and lawmakers ultimately kept online instruction with the Florida Virtual School and the state’s 67 countywide school districts. A compromise created virtual charter schools, but approval of those schools would rest with the school districts, restricting the technology to the confines of each county. That meant the instruction from a virtual charter in, say, Miami-Dade County would not travel to neighboring Broward County. 

Chubb writes, “If states leave access in the hands of local boards, they will slow the development of technology-based instruction, which is clearly not in the best interest of students.” On that, he is right. While more districts are creating online programs to serve their own students, they are presiding over 21st-century educational innovations with a 19th-century system of schooling. The longer that happens, the harder it will be for states to deliver a public education that attempts to be different.

Learn more by registering to attend or view Fordham’s April 19 panel discussion on digital learning, “Education Reform for the Digital Era,” featuring John Chubb.

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