State policies affect digital learning in districts

This is the final post in a series exploring digital learning in districts, following discussions of how digital learning activity varies by grade level and by district size. We also touched on student’s needs for mentors in computer labs. In addition to those factors, the level of digital learning activity in school districts is influenced by state policies in several ways, including the following:

  • Student choice allowing students to choose online schools and/or online courses, and have their education funding follow to the school or course provider.
  • Existence and strength of charter school laws.
  • The support of a state virtual school that is enrolling a relatively high percentage of students, such as in Florida, New Hampshire, North Carolina, and Idaho.

None of these policies is perfectly predictive of digital learning activity in school districts, but often we see districts responding in one or more ways:

  • Districts may actively work with state virtual schools, and often begin by offering state virtual school courses to district students and then expand to using other providers, or creating their own courses.
  • Districts may feel that they are losing students to online charter schools, and create their own online schools to keep those students.
  • In states that allow students to choose online courses from outside providers, districts may increase their own online course offerings either for their own students, or to list the courses on statewide course catalogs for students across the state.

Comparing Pennsylvania to Maryland is illustrative. The two share a long state line, and each has one or more major cities (Philadelphia, Baltimore), extensive suburbs, and expansive rural areas. But both our research for Keeping Pace and a report we did for the Maryland Department of Education several years ago suggest that much more digital learning activity is occurring in Pennsylvania than in Maryland. In Pennsylvania many districts and ISDs are creating online schools and courses because they feel they are losing funding to online charter schools. Maryland does not have policies that support statewide online schools, nor does it have a well-funded state virtual school. Although the passage of Maryland’s HB1362 in 2010 authorized school districts to establish a virtual public school subject to the approval of the state superintendent, as of July 2014 no districts had requested approval for a virtual school. Some districts, including in Baltimore and Howard County, have digital learning options, but overall these options are limited compared to those in Pennsylvania.

Other examples exist as well. The growth of the Florida Virtual School to the point that it has served more than two million course completions across the state in its history appears to have spurred the legislature and individual districts to create a variety of district-led digital learning options. Michigan has long supported a state virtual school, more recently added online and blended charter schools, is currently implementing course choice, and has many districts offering and/or creating online courses. Arizona has policies that support online learning within both charter schools and district programs, serving students full-time or part-time.

A lack of data on district-level digital learning activity makes it hard to demonstrate that these policies are spurring action. But even with the caution that correlation doesn’t imply causation, it appears that the shaded states on the Keeping Pace maps showing student access to online schools, courses, and course choice generally have more district-level activity than the non-shaded states.