The Inevitable Effects of Utah's Online Education Program #sb65

I can't sleep tonight. I keep thinking about my children and wondering about the "school" they will experience in years to come.

After analyzing Utah's recently passed Senate Bill 65 (SB 65), I've come to the conclusion that this law - if allowed to remain unaltered - will mark the beginning of the end for most rural public schools in Utah, and could cause the eventual closure of at least half of all its public districts.

What scares me even more is my belief in how intentional this consequence was in the minds of the participating bill framers and legislators who successfully fashioned this law. Moreover, it wouldn't surprise me to learn that futurists like Clayton Christensen and Michael Horn were behind the bill's promulgation and development, just to push forward their visions more aggressively in the relatively small and naive state of Utah.

Regardless of the motives behind the law's creation, I have several questions for any person that thinks this law - including its fiscal consequences - might actually be a good idea.

1. How does a teacher really reach 1,500 or even 15,000 students, given that online courses "shall not cap enrollments"? While effective online instruction should enable a mechanically differentiated curriculum, I've yet to see a computer teach with empathy. I fear that as Utah children flock toward "easier" online courses, they will be missing out on the life, moral, and civility lessons that only a sensitive and breathing human can provide.

Hello online learning, goodbye sensitive and empathetically adaptive instruction.

2. What will happen when the fiscal consequences of this law force districts to pay other districts more of their WPU than the revenue they're provided by the State? At up to $904 dollars per one-credit online course, the meager $2,577 "weighted pupil unit" that Utah districts receive simply won't go far (as if such a low WPU went far enough before).

Let's say, for example, a student in a school that uses the popular 8-period block schedule decides to take just four classes from online course providers outside their resident district. This simple scenario will result in the resident district being forced to pay those external providers $3,616, while still being required to provide a "quality" education during the student's remaining four periods of instruction (now being in the hole $1,039). Is this negative $1,039 the money that should then be used to provide students with an empathetic and emotionally capable human-being-type instructor?

How does that work? Really? While larger districts across the state might be able to provide adequate and competitive online programs for students, I doubt that smaller districts with less revenue will be able to attract students and their dollars for extended periods of time.

Hello online learning, goodbye public districts that simply can't (or won't?) compete.

3. Do we really want students to learn their most difficult lessons without the hands-on direct instruction that face-to-face can more effectively provide?

Continuing with the scenario above, I don't think it's unreasonable to think that many of Utah's students will want to take solid academic classes online (science, engineering, technology, language, math); particularly if they're living in a small, cash-strapped district that simply can't afford lavish programs because of the meager resources they've been provided. If this happens, and schools are left with even less funding to now provide the extra-curricular programs that can only be legitimately accomplished face-to-face, then will these programs (athletics, most art, clubs, etc.) really survive? My experience tells me that only football and drama will be left (and similar pet programs of the rich), because booster dollars and fundraisers can only go so far. Many otherwise valuable programs will simply not have enough capable parents to support it.

Hello online learning, goodbye once-diverse, extra-curricular programs.

At the end of the day, I see SB 65 as our State's way of clearing the stage. Combine that thought with the fact that only 4 of 41 public school districts in Utah saw funding increases this legislative year; while 76 of 81 charter schools saw increases. Don't worry, it's probably coming your way soon, too.

If you give a Legislature online learning and "school choice," they'll get it; along with every other damaging unintended consequence they've failed to anticipate. Lucky for us, this precludes public schools' increasingly uncanny ability to teach to the test (notice how charters can hardly compete).

No wonder I can't sleep tonight.

The Irony of Education Reform

One of the great ironies of the 21st Century education reform movement lies in how teachers have spent their lives trying to become obsolete and unneeded by the students they serve.

Now, they're ultimately being forced to fight from becoming obsolete and unneeded by the very society they've successfully built.

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