Last year, Linzey Leinart earned her high school diploma and an associate’s degree from Chandler-Gilbert Community College at the same time. How did she manage to do both?
Linzey took classes at Sequoia Choice Arizona Distance Learning, an online education provider that operates full-time virtual schools as well as four learning laboratories around the Phoenix metro area, where students can work at their own pace to complete their coursework. Leaving high school with both a high school diploma and an associate’s degree gave Lindsay a head start as she entered college full-time.
“The transition to the university was a piece of cake because she’d already spent all of her high school years in a community college setting,” Linzey’s mom, Marissa, said.
“That forced her to be more mature and allowed her to skip the high school drama and awkwardness. She became a focused student on a mission.” Lindsey now studies in the honors program at the University of Arizona.
Computers, tablets, and the Internet are changing the way students learn all over the world. Nearly 2 million K-12 students take online classes in the U.S., according to the International Association for K-12 Online Learning (iNACOL). Millions more are taking college classes online.
It is wrong that the quality of the schools available to families depends on where they live. Online learning gives parents more freedom to choose a school based on their child’s needs instead of their ZIP code.
The Millennial generation stands to benefit greatly from the advance of technology in education. Writing for The Wall Street Journal earlier this year, Michael S. Malone said, “Millennials face one of the greatest opportunities any generation has ever known: to completely remake the world through boundless digital technology.” As the advance of flexible, customized learning opportunities demonstrates, online education is an inescapable part of this new world.
For Arizona students, the state’s laws and rules for online schools have not kept up with the times. For example, we don’t know how many students are completing individual classes or finishing a full year at a full-time online school.
Furthermore, we can only make general estimates about how much money online schools save taxpayers. In 2007, Arizona’s auditor general reported that the state’s virtual schools provided taxpayers with a cost savings of 18 percent per student over traditional schools, and the audit said there is the potential for more savings. However, no state agency has taken up the issue since the report.
Nationwide, we have enough evidence about student success with online classes to know that online learning has great potential, but more research is needed. Florida’s statewide virtual school reports higher average scores on end-of-course tests in math, science, and history than the state average. Hybrid schools in Oakland, California, reported faster reading gains (improvements of between 10-25 percentage points) among students than the district average.
Yet full-time virtual schools tend to have high rates of student turnover compared to traditional schools. Without accurate information on how many students are enrolled in these schools in Arizona or how many are completing online classes, and if these classes are helping more students to graduate, parents, students, and lawmakers are left without important pieces of information.
Examples from Colorado and Florida demonstrate the kinds of information that would be useful to parents and policymakers and a funding mechanism that can save taxpayer dollars. In Colorado, the Colorado Online Learning (COL) system makes publicly available the number of students who finish classes with an online provider, how many students earned a passing grade, and the name of the course they passed.
In Florida, lawmakers fund the statewide virtual school with partial funding at the beginning of the semester and the remainder after a student has successfully completed the class. This gives the virtual school the incentive to help students finish their coursework and prevents taxpayers from having to pay for schools that aren’t teaching students.
Online learning has important advantages for students, and lawmakers should make sure state agencies are clearing defining these advantages to parents and students. Along the way, the data will demonstrate how virtual schools can improve their services. Meanwhile, lawmakers should update the state’s complicated funding system to allow students to easily take classes in multiple places during the same semester, including online and at brick-and-mortar schools.
– Jonathan Butcher is the education policy director at the Goldwater Institute.