Distance Learning Is Advancing School Choice

Published December 1, 2007

As important as school vouchers are, the greatest progress toward choice probably isn’t taking place in Utah right now.

I say this not to minimize the efforts being made there, but to remind reformers the solutions to traditional questions may not have traditional answers.

Instead, the most exciting progress in education reform is in technology and distance learning.

Education technology does not merely mean having a computer (or computers) in the classroom. It is simply a computer, the student–and, depending on the format, the tutor–all connected by Internet technology. On the surface, it might not seem very revolutionary, but the most effective forms of competition that have been introduced into the education monopoly have been through technology.

Win-Win Situations

Consider the following two examples:

In Alaska, the Galena school district, seeking to profit from the large number of homeschoolers statewide, set up a distance education program in 1997 to increase its revenue base. The program has been a roaring success. Homeschoolers like it because it gives them flexibility and ownership over their education, and the district likes it because it can add those homeschoolers to its rosters when seeking funding from the state.

What makes Galena unique is that the distance education school has been established completely independent of any statute or regulation. From beginning to end, it has been a local project.

In Wisconsin, the Monroe school district, likewise seeking to expand its revenue base, started a distance education program in 2002. It subcontracts with colleges in other states to offer classes. Students can choose from a wide range of classes from accredited universities, for Advanced Placement or regular credits toward their high school diplomas.

The district gets a block of funding from the state for each student using the program, gives a portion of it to the college or university that is teaching the student, and pockets the rest. It’s not a true universal voucher, but it is a significant step in the right direction. The program has started with high school students and is now expanding to middle school students.

If this is the future of education reform, it is completely changing the debate about the form school choice should take.

Future Steps

Inevitably, the traditional monopolies will seek to bottleneck this system and try to take control of it. Education reformers need to stay one step ahead through the following means:

  • Expand the rights to on-demand education. In Massachusetts, if a student wants to take an online, distance education course, by state law the school cannot deny that student. Another idea is to mandate an Individual Education Plan (IEP) for every student in the state, and use that mandate to take ground concerning other educational rights. For example, if a parent or child wishes to change or customize an IEP, pass a law saying they cannot be denied that right.
  • Expand local school districts’ flexibility to subcontract to meet their goals. In a virtual classroom completely customized to the individual student, subcontracting teachers becomes a necessity. This will be easy for school districts to accept, given that an individual contract is easier to manage than hiring a full-time permanent employee. Making it easy for individual teachers to contract with individual school districts will open up one of the largest untapped resources of teachers we have–full-time graduate students.
  • Reform education funding formulas. Make the funding follow the student, and introduce all reforms with an opportunity for a school district to receive a portion of that funding. Most states’ funding formulas are not prepared for online technology because they were built on the brick-and-mortar school model.

Jeremy Thompson ([email protected]) writes from Alaska.