Tuesday, November 1, 2011

On-Line Education: Putting Taxpayers Underwater?

I had an opportunity to visit with the administration of the Weber School District and discuss some of the issues facing public schools from a Weber County perspective.

One of the topics of discussion was the implementation of SB65 which was proposed last year to allow Utah students to enroll with on-line education providers.  One of the consequences of the bill was that it provided a taxpayer subsidized credit to any online provider which now appears to be in the amount of $731 per credit.

Unfortunately, it also appears that the legislation provided few mechanisms for providing adequate accountability from those providers receiving taxpayer dollars. 

The school district cited two areas of improvement to SB 65 that it felt would better achieve the goals of the legislation while also providing some checks to misuse:

1.  Reduce the Dollar Amount Allotted Per Credit

The statutory Weighted Pupil Unit (WPU) is a formula used to determine how many taxpayer dollars are allocated per student to a public school.  In 2011, this number was $2,816.  Under SB 65, as it currently stands, on-line providers will be given $1,462 for providing classes for just two credits.  That is nearly half of the WPU allotted to a public school over the year.  In 2016 when students are allowed to take up to six credits, the total amount will be $4,386...nearly twice WPU.  It appears that this type of program, if on-line classes are to become more prominent in the education of Utah students, will begin to weigh heavily on the public coffers, jeopardize its viability, and make the program unsustainable.

A solution to this dilemma would be to reduce the subsidy to the on-line provider to an amount in line with other privately available courses.  For example, BYU's Independent study courses cost betwen $48 and $126 per credit.

2.  Allocate Funds to Districts to Also Develop On-Line Courses

Given the taxpayer investment that already exists in local school districts, it may be appropriate to allow local districts to develop their own on-line course material which can dovetail with the new higher standards of the Common Core Curriculum and provide students with an alternative means of study but with material that can be adapted to be compatible with current curriculum.  Also, having district level on-line credits would also allow for better accountability in testing.  By following testing protocols found in many universities, dishonesty in academic achievement (i.e. when mom or dad do the student's on-line work) can be removed from the learning experience. 

In essence, it appears that SB 65 has produced a few unintended consequences.  This is not surprising as almost all new legislation does this.  Hence, it may be wise for the legislature to look at amending the statute to address some of these concerns.  I look forward to the debate and seeing what we can do to make the on-line learning experience more productive and more cost-effective. 


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