Alabama Looks to March On With Online Education

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According to a bill lawmakers passed last year, every public school in the Alabama should offer a virtual education component by the 2016-2017 academic year. But last week a North Alabama school superintendent commented that before any changes come into effect, the state law regarding online schools needs to be clarified to allow state financing to follow students, writes Mary Sell Montgomery Bureau of the Decatur Daily.

Athens City Schools Superintendent Trey Holladay said that if the school educates pupils fully, it should also receive funding for them. In response to that, Sen. Dick Brewbaker, R-Montgomery, who sponsored last year’s bill, said that the superintendents could negotiate that among themselves.

At the moment, Brewbaker has put forth Senate Bill 229, which allows state funding to follow pupils from their home districts to their online institutions. Sen. Brewbaker confirmed the bill focused on students who did not attend the local school and received 100 percent of their education from virtual programs.

Holladay said his school had been actively attracting homeschool and private school students to its online and traditional programs. The school accepted more than 300 of those students last year, added Holladay. Money did follow the students in cases when they had been enrolled through a board-approved transfer policy. However, the Alabama State Department of Education said the transfer policy is not applicable to students living more than 50 miles away. As a result, Athens stopped admitting pupils who live long distances away because the school would not get paid for them.

State per-student funding is calculated on average daily membership, which is the median enrollment per school district for the 20 days following Labor Day. According to Holladay, the funding is worth above $5,000 per student. The high-quality virtual education costs about the same, he said.

Susan Kennedy of the Alabama Education Association stated online schools should receive funding for the service they offer, but not the entire state allocation.

Superintendents from other Alabama schools commented that they would need more time to implement the bill and to have all the problematic issues clarified:

“When school systems agree to work together to do what’s best for kids — and not start looking to take each other’s money — that’s when we’ll have success.”

Online learning is not new to Alabama schools, but lawmakers have not yet tapped its full potential. Gov. Bob Riley’s administration did launch the ACCESS distance learning program, writes Mike Cason of AL.com, that allowed students to take classes that aren’t available in their regular schools such as advanced courses and electives.

Most of the ACCESS classes use web-based programs for distance learning, but ACCESS also provides video feeds of classroom teachers. Students deliver their homework and get in touch with teachers online. As of April 2015, more than 27,000 students are enrolled in ACCESS, which is available in all high schools in Alabama.

Sen. Brewbaker openly admitted he received several complaints on the quality of ACCESS courses, and he promised to investigate the issue and give recommendations for improvement.

Athens City Schools in Alabama were among the first to implement the new bill for online education. The school and FuelEducation started working together to provide full-time virtual and blended public school for students in grades K–12 who can take advantage from a highly flexible, personalized learning model.  In an official press release, Athens City School wrote that the focus is on students who are independent thinkers, do not fit into the traditional school model, and have parents who are highly involved in their education.

In addition to that, the Athens City School Superintendent confirmed in an interview with The News Courier that integrating of FuelEd courses will not cost taxpayers a penny because the expansion is completely state funded.