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It’s an embarrassment that California, the state that led the technology revolution in America, is, according to Digital Learning Now, last in the nation in using technology to transform its education system from its current factory-model roots into a student-centric one.
California policy has done its best to create a byzantine—some might say bizarre—set of regulations to frustrate the power of online learning to do just that. From geographic barriers that limit the ability of students in certain locales to access online learning to restricting blended learning in some unfortunate ways, California has created a maze to frustrate would-be innovators.
There have been some attempts by legislators over the last couple of years to begin to rectify some of these problems, but they have only stalled. Although some charter school operators, such as Rocketship Education and KIPP Empower, as well as some school districts, like Riverside School District, have created stellar blended-learning models, the most advanced school districts in California in online and blended learning have seen their efforts frustrated and curtailed. Even the exciting emerging blended-learning models appearing throughout California in response to tight budgets are limited in how innovative they could be by California’s regulatory landscape.
Against this backdrop, a group called Education Forward has introduced “The California Student Bill of Rights Act”—a proposed ballot initiative that would unlock some of the most onerous barriers to online and blended learning in California. But it would do so in an indirect way.
The initiative is actually not about online or blended learning per se; instead it’s designed to solve one of the most pressing problems facing California students today.
That problem is this: a stunning 1 million high school students in California—roughly 50 percent of the state’s high school student population—attend schools that do not offer the full slate of courses required for admission to the state’s university systems. This means that in many of California’s public high schools, students can graduate, but they won’t be able to get into a UC or CSU college even if they have a good GPA and good test scores.
The initiative solves this problem by creating a mechanism to move beyond simple seat-time funding and instead offer fractional funding to the course level, so students can take courses from an outside institution if their home school doesn’t offer a certain course. The initiative also stipulates that a school or district cannot deny students access to the courses needed for admission to the University of California and California State University systems, including college prep and Advanced Placement courses—a statement of a student’s basic educational rights.
If the initiative gathers the requisite number of signatures to be on the ballot, with a single vote this November, California’s voters could eliminate one of the most egregious examples of inequity in its educational system—and it won’t cost taxpayers any additional funds to do it. This fact alone should allow people from all sides to come together and get behind this.
The initiative certainly isn’t perfect—no initiative or bill is. It leaves a lot of discretion up to several entities, from the departments of education and finance to potentially the legislature—to create the mechanisms to make this all work well. If it passes, the “real” work would likely begin afterward. Some of the organizers behind Education Forward have some clever ideas about how to fund the online courses a student might take, for example—by offering 50 percent of funding to the provider up-front for enrollment, 25 percent for the student passing the course, and the last 25 percent upon successful passage of the state final exam—but this idea, which moves the focus to student outcomes, isn’t codified explicitly in the initiative (although the notion of competency-based learning is, which might lead to such an outcomes-based funding system).
But what successful passage of the measure would do is assert the voice of the people of California as a means to pressure the stalled legislature to do the right thing. And in so doing, it could do more than just solve the problem of equity to high-quality educational opportunities in the state, it also creates a mechanism for competency-based learning, establishes a strong grounding for what online learning and blended learning are, and eliminates the outmoded geographic barriers that prevent students from being able to access high-quality learning opportunities no matter where they originate in the state.
As such, it’s a much-needed breath of fresh air for a state that has been stuck for years now when it comes to education policy—and it could lead the way to bigger and better things ahead.
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