Washington state must embrace online learning, “the future of education,” but a lawsuit against funding cuts interferes with the Office of Superintendent of Public Instruction’s right to decide where to allocate dollars.
MANY students in Washington’s K-12 public education system take classes online, some never entering a traditional brick-and-mortar school.
Our state’s challenge to serve these students while creating accountability in one of the fastest-growing sectors of education is complicated by a lawsuit filed by online-learning advocates protesting budget cuts.
The Office of Superintendent of Public Instruction was ordered by Gov. Chris Gregoire to reduce education spending. The result: Previously, traditional and online schools received the same funding; now, online schools receive an annual average of $4,250 per student — 15 percent less.
We don’t like cuts to any part of education. But OSPI had the right, and responsibility, to decide where to allocate education dollars.
Moreover, the complex funding formulas for online education and traditional schools should be different. For example, the state should not allocate transportation dollars for virtual learning. Numerous other examples abound, enough to make a convincing case that online education can be funded fairly and differently from traditional schools.
Meanwhile, cuts in online learning have spurred school districts to rethink how they serve online students. More districts are focusing on serving students in their district, a step away from the current, large, statewide online schools. Steilacoom is an example of a small district with 2,000-plus students in its online-education program. That’s more students than Steilacoom’s physical student population.
About 18,000 students took at least one online course last year, according to Karl Nelson, director of digital learning for Washington state. About 9,000 students are enrolled full time in online schools. More than 50 school districts around the state offer online programs — mostly through for-profit companies.
Online education is popular for disabled students, accelerated learners and at-risk students who don’t mesh well in typical school environments. Working students who must do their schooling on a different schedule are also among those enrolled in online education.
The National Association of State Boards of Education called online learning the “future of education” in a much-touted 2001 report, “Any Time, Any Place, Any Path, Any Pace.”
Washington should continue to support online learning, but a lawsuit wrongly challenges the state’s right to develop a fair funding model and accountability system.