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Goldwater Institute Calls for Update to Arizona’s Online Learning Laws

April 28, 2015

Phoenix—A new report says online learning has the potential to give Arizona students access to world-class teachers and classes, but that the state laws governing online schools and classes are woefully out of date.

“Online learning provides educational flexibility and customizes learning by giving families access to the best teachers and coursework available, regardless of where they live or the quality of public schools in their neighborhood,” said Jonathan Butcher, the education policy director at the Goldwater Institute. “This past session, lawmakers considered a number of reforms to the state’s education laws. A growing number of students aren’t attending a brick-and-mortar school at all, and next legislative session, more should be done to improve the governance of and access to online learning.”

Arizona law allows students to attend school online full-time, or to take some of their classes online. According to Arizona Department of Education data, 55 traditional and charter schools in Arizona allow students to take classes online; 21 of those schools (all charter schools) offer full-time online learning. Nationwide, more than 1.8 million students take classes online, with more than 300,000 of those enrolled full time.

The laws governing Arizona’s online schools are out-of-date and need to reflect best practices from around the country, says a new report from the Goldwater Institute. “How Online Schools Can Improve Student Achievement and Use Resources More Effectively” explains that Arizona’s online learning laws need three important updates:

  1. The state needs to keep better track of how many students attend school online full time and part time. Right now, the state Department of Education doesn’t have a clear way to measure how many students finish either individual courses or a full year of school at an online school.
  2. Change the funding formula so that students are able to move at their own pace, without meeting seat time requirements or having to be enrolled in a school full time. Right now, online schools are still required to have students complete a minimum number of hours of study even if a student has mastered a subject or is ready to move on to the next grade level. One of the best features of online learning is the flexibility it offers students and their families. If a student masters Algebra I in a matter of months, the funding should be available to let him enroll in the next class when he’s ready.
  3. Borrow a best practice from Florida and pay online schools when students master a subject. Instead of paying schools the entire lump sum for a student upfront, schools should be paid when a student masters a subject or grade. This will give online schools an incentive to keep students engaged and enrolled and make sure they are learning.

Online learning academic results across the country have been inconclusive. Some online schools show great results; like the Florida Virtual School, where its students out-score students in traditional classroom settings on Algebra I, Geometry, Biology, and U.S. History. Students in other online programs have fared worse than their traditional school peers. “This is why it’s important to borrow from Florida’s best practice of paying schools when a student masters a subject. If we want to make sure students are learning, then we should tie funding to that goal,” said Butcher.

Online schools cost Arizona taxpayers about 22 percent less per student than traditional brick-and-mortar schools. Helping families understand their online schooling options, including using the state’s Empowerment Scholarship Accounts to pay for online curriculum and other materials, could save the state money in tight budget years, the report explains.

Empowerment Scholarship Accounts allow students with unique needs, like those with disabilities or in failing schools, to customize their education with a state-funded account. The account allows families to pay for educational therapies, tutoring, online classes, and even private school tuition. Last month, lawmakers expanded eligibility for these accounts to students living on Native American Reservations.

“Embracing online learning is good for students. It opens up countless options for families, providing access to courses that may not be available otherwise. It also allows students to learn at their own pace, while getting support from qualified teachers,” said Butcher. “Online learning equalizes opportunity and has the potential to reach society’s most vulnerable. So we hope lawmakers will use this report as a blueprint for updating Arizona’s online learning laws.”

Read the report “How Online Schools Can Improve Student Achievement and Use Resources More Effectively” here.





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