Pennsylvania House Votes to Mandate Online Courses in All Schools

The Pennsylvania House Education Committee has passed a bill that is designed to transform the way education is delivered in all public schools in Pennsylvania. The bill, sponsored by Rep. Ryan Aument, R-Lancaster, would require secondary schools to offer online courses to 6th- through 12th-graders. The bill passed the committee on a near party-line 15-9 vote, with Republicans in support and Democrats dissenting, following an hour-and-a-half debate, according to Jan Murphy of Penn Live.

The legislation would require schools to make online courses available to students in grades 9 to 12 starting in 2015-16. The mandate would apply to students in grades 6 to 8 beginning in 2018-19. According to Aument, the mandate as necessary to spur innovation in the way education is delivered in all of Pennsylvania's schools.

"It's important to encourage this level of innovation statewide," Aument told committee members. "I don't believe that all school districts will make these opportunities available without some encouragement and frankly some from guidance from the General Assembly."

The guidance would come through a clearinghouse of standards-aligned online courses that the state Department of Education would be compelled to create and post on its website. It would include a course description and rating system for course evaluation.

School districts could select courses from the clearinghouse or choose to use their own online courses, ones offered by other public schools or ones offered by for-profit providers, ultimately deciding which courses will be offered and which students are eligible to take them. Also, they would be responsible with negotiating the price they would pay with the course provider.

"The maximum flexibility is to ensure school districts are able to meet this requirement in the most cost-efficient manner," Aument said.

Rep. Mike Carroll, D-Luzerne, is concerned about the costs associated with offering online courses.

"I don't know how I reconcile the challenges my district face financially with this unknown cost that it seems to me they are going to be mandated to accept," Carroll said. He joined with all but one Democrat who opposed the legislation.

According to Rep. Kathy Rapp, R-Warren, the cost issue is debatable and school districts might realize a savings by offering courses online.

"I see this bill as opening doors in education and breaking down barriers for students who want courses available that are not currently there in school districts," Rapp said.

Aument said districts could generate revenue by selling their own online offerings to other schools. In addition, he said it might lead to students enrolled in cyberschools to re-enroll in their home district if they knew online learning opportunities were available.

The bill was inspired by three Lancaster County school districts that began a well-received online course pilot this year, Aument said.

"By moving the bill out of committee, it elevates the conversation," Aument said. "It's an important step to get additional feedback and to make further refinement."

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