By Mike Klein
Georgia legislators have begun to remove shackles that prevented the Georgia Virtual School from achieving its vast potential to help connect students with digital learning. Two bills would fix a flawed funding model, prohibit schools from blocking students who want to enroll in GAVS courses, and create an expanded clearinghouse of courses available statewide.
Legislation (SB 289) to fix the funding formula and significantly expand student access to digital learning has passed the Senate and this week it received unanimous voice vote approval in a House education committee hearing. Legislation (HB 175) to create the state clearinghouse of online course offerings has passed the House and Senate.
Senate Majority Leader Chip Rogers sponsored SB 289. As originally drafted, the bill required that each incoming student who begins his or her freshman year during the 2014 – 2015 school year would need to complete at least one online learning course prior to graduation.
The requirement to complete at least one course is now gone, but the intention remains strong. “I don’t think that’s such a big problem but I understand others do so we’re just saying it’s going to be available and we certainly want to encourage our (local school) systems to use it as much as they can,” Rogers said.
Georgia Virtual School has been a successful but nonetheless somewhat timid foray into digital learning. GAVS is located inside the state department of education. Seven years ago it began to offer a limited schedule of supplemental courses to students statewide. GAVS is extremely valuable to students who need courses that are not offered locally, for instance, advanced placement and science courses.
But Georgia Virtual School enrollments were limited to just a few thousand per year by the General Assembly, and students could not enroll in GAVS courses unless they had permission from their local school system. A state audit published in December 2010 reported that some local school systems admitted they would deny permission because they did not want to lose state funds.
The funding formula problem was addressed in the Senate legislation sponsored by Rogers. Under the existing format a local school loses all state funds when a student selects a GAVS course over one offered in the local school. Under the new formula the state would keep a portion of the cost up to $250 but the school would still receive up to $400. In effect, the school wins $400 if the student is using GAVS resources.
Senate Bill 289 is also explicit about guaranteeing student access: “A local school system shall not prohibit any student from taking a course through the Georgia Virtual School, regardless of whether the school in which the student is enrolled offers the same course.”
House Bill 175 will create a vehicle for local school systems and charter schools to share their online learning resources. For example, Cobb County and Gwinnett County have extensive digital learning resources that they would be able to register with the state clearinghouse. These courses could be available to any student anywhere in Georgia.
Many education bills are working their way through the State Capitol, including the charter schools constitutional amendment resolution and a substantial reworking of the state funding formula, unchanged since 1985. The digital learning bills have not received quite the same headlines as others but their potential impact to change how millions of Georgia students learn is vast. Rogers estimated the number of GAVS students could grow from 15,000 next year to 100,000 in just a few years.
“Sometimes we forget the major role of education is to prepare our students for a future outside the classroom,” Rogers said. “I think society in general has moved in that direction at a very rapid rate. If a student takes anywhere from 48 to 60 classes over a four-year period in high school that one of them be a digital class is probably good for their preparation.”