Opinion: When Schools Are Hostile to Online Course Choice

Some K-12 public school districts have not been making a good-faith effort to provide their students with the best available outsourced online learning options.

Take my school district in Anne Arundel County. Prior to COVID-19, the Maryland State Board of Education provided a list of inexpensive outsourced online courses from which local districts could choose. My district further limited options by adding two unwritten restrictions. First, a student could not use a course that competed with the in-house (and predominantly unionized) K-12 educators on the district’s payroll.

Second, the course had to be so inexpensive that a typical student taking it saved the district money. Federal and state revenues fund a third of the operating budget, so any online course that cost less and prevented a student from dropping out, such as keeping pregnant or remedial students enrolled, made money for the district.

My family endured a Kafkaesque experience so my son, whose two older sisters had each been a student member of the Anne Arundel County Board of Education, could take one of these courses his senior year. We prevailed, but it was a pyrrhic victory.

The course was awful, a combination of the worst features of online instruction (factory-style, one-size-fits-all instruction) and the worst features of traditional instruction (impersonable and incompetent instruction).

We had wanted him to take a high-quality online course offered by Johns Hopkins University for high school students. We even offered to pay for it ourselves. My district replied that for my son to receive credit he had to take its approved course.

The district currently pays $300 for the type of online course my son took. That translates to less than 20% of the district’s current in-house provided course cost. The high-quality Johns Hopkins course also cost less — but would have been both more of a competitive threat and not made money for the district.

Since COVID-19 struck last March, the district has relied 100% on online learning for regular instruction. In its budget approved four months later, it cut its budget for online course choice while increasing its overall budget, including its budget for in-house staff compensation.

Such behavior may be explained by converging school and course choice politics. Prior to COVID-19, my district viewed online school choice as more threatening to its budget and its staff’s political power than online course choice. Now, after many families’ dismal experience with in-house online courses and their skyrocketing demand for outsourced online courses, both types of choice are viewed as an equal threat.

This dismal political reality shouldn’t be swept under the rug.

Journalists should distinguish between a district’s in-house and outsourced online courses and report on their comparative costs. The theory that you get what you pay for in education is endlessly repeated in local K-12 public education politics. It should also apply to outsourced online courses.

Advocates should sue districts with inadequate online course options. Recent decades have witnessed many successful lawsuits seeking adequate funding for K-12 public education, notably in-house teacher compensation. State constitutional and other guarantees of a “free and equal” right to public education should apply to online as well as brick-and-mortar education.

Where local K-12 public school districts fail to provide an adequately high-quality online education as measured by variables such as student attendance, cheating, grades and test results, families should be allowed to have their children take accredited, high-quality online courses that cost no more than comparable in-house courses.

J.H. Snider

Legislatures should pass laws to facilitate informed online course choice and apply them equally to both in-house and outsourced courses. For example, the cost of all district approved online course options should be clearly posted online so the public can compare in-house vs. outsourced costs.

Similarly, families need simple course quality metrics, regardless of whether courses are provided in-house or outsourced. One approach would use a simple five-star rating system for feedback from verified customers, such as used by e-commerce providers such as Amazon and Walmart. These comment systems also allow comments and ratings of the raters.

Standards for disclosure should be set nationally because online courses are provided nationally and because local standards tend to be hopelessly politicized. Each locality designs standards to make itself look good rather than provide an objective and accurate benchmark. Allowing the union-dominated Maryland State Department of Education to evaluate and select eligible courses has been like granting one competitor the power to choose its competitors.

The public should hold their public officials to account. At a forum for Democratic presidential primary candidates during the most recent election cycle, the president of the National Education Association, the nation’s largest teachers’ union, explained her goal in orchestrating the forum. She said it was “to decide who is for kids and who is just kidding.” That’s a good question the people of Maryland should be asking Maryland General Assembly, Maryland State Department of Education, and local Maryland school district leaders who in practice if not in rhetoric have sought to cripple high-quality online course options for Maryland families.

The General Assembly’s current legislative agenda for education reform, which is based on the Kirwan Commission’s recommendations, feels like an effort to protect and upgrade the horse-and-buggy industry when the future belongs to the automobile.

One day the optimal model for public education may have a very different mix of both in-person vs. online and in-house vs. outsourced instruction. For example, like other software industries, education software could become more capital intensive, with hundreds of millions of dollars spent developing basic K-12 online courses for subjects such as Algebra I, Spanish I and U.S. History. The teachers matched to work with this software, like today’s teachers who teach textbooks, could do so remotely because teaching skills and costs are not evenly dispersed among America’s school districts. And the in-person “schools” where students spend their days, like today’s “pandemic pods,” may specialize in providing a supportive student environment rather than teaching content.

If such a day ever comes about, future historians may view K-12 public school districts like my own that allowed entrenched interests to retard its coming as one of the greatest tragedies of the COVID-19 era.

–J.H. SNIDER

The writer is president of iSolon.org and has published widely about K-12 education policy and politics.