By: Mary Riner
Pennsylvania kids wishing for snow days might soon come into a shock while parents breathe a sigh of relief. That’s because the Pennsylvania State House of Representatives passed the Online Education Initiative, a proposal that could replace the Xbox with online classes on snow days.
Replacing snow days with learning days is just one of the many possibilities of this Course Choice proposal. Representative Ryan Aument says that winter illustrates the power of online education and there is no reason for a snow day to stand in the way of learning. Course Choice is one great way for students to be able to do actual school work without chipping away at holidays or shortening summer vacation.
The plan calls for the Department of Education to establish an Online Course Clearinghouse of vetted and approved virtual, face-to-face, or blended learning classes for all students in grades six through 12. Parents, this means that your children will have the opportunity to participate in a greater number of courses that your school district did not previously offer.
In this day and age of shrinking school budgets (state per-pupil spending in Pennsylvania is down 5.9% from 2008 according to the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities), the Clearinghouse affords a creative way for districts to share resources and keep the eye on the ball of student achievement. It follows in the footsteps of Louisiana’s highly lauded Course Choice program and is inspired by Open Campus PA, a partnership between three Lancaster County school districts.
The idea is to use the power of technology to provide greater course choices to students and schools who do not have access to them. Louisiana’s program demonstrates the potential of this law by opening up AP courses for all of its students, when less than half of them could take advantage before. Imagine the opportunities this could create for Pennsylvania’s rural, low-income urban, and smaller school districts. Kids in Susquehanna County could take AP Physics and Biology from Seneca Valley School District. It’d be a win for the kids and a win for the Susquehanna school district as it bypasses all of the costs associated with building and maintaining AP programs.
This sharing of resources is already at play in Lancaster County where many teaching positions have been eliminated because of budget cuts. Hempfield students can now take astronomy from Penn Manor’s astronomy teacher and Penn Manor students can now take Latin from Hempfield’s Latin teacher.
The best online and blended learning courses customize content and meet the needs of students where they are, whether they are advanced or falling behind. Students move on at their own pace once they have demonstrated mastery of the material. In the Open Campus PA model, high school students, many of whom work after school, can even take the courses on their own time in odd hours during the week or on weekends.
Accountability is built into the Online Course Clearinghouse. Course participants provide feedback and there is a rating system that is displayed publicly. A performance-based funding plan withholds 40% of the per-course fee to providers until the course is completed.
The Pennsylvania Department of Education is already on board with this new program and to show its good faith, it has vetted and approved more than a dozen providers of Algebra I and Biology, two courses necessary for the Keystone Exams. And for those districts worried about potential start-up costs, the Governor has conveniently added a $10M line item in the education budget for hybrid-learning grants. The plan’s next stop is the Pennsylvania State Senate.
Snow days aside, parents and policy makers alike should take note. Pennsylvania could join the ranks of other states like Louisiana, Utah, Georgia, and Florida in launching one of the most important policy innovations in K12 education that’s great for kids and easy on the checkbook.
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