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Funding for Idaho online learning would vary widely

Online-learning providers would receive different amounts for delivering the same course to students from different districts, raising equity concerns

Most students are likely to take online classes for which their districts sign contracts, but the law does allow Idaho families to choose other courses or providers.

A quirk of Idaho’s new “Students Come First” school reform law means that online course providers will get far more state money for providing classes to students in some Idaho school districts than in others, raising concerns that students might not have equal opportunities for online learning across the state.

For example, an online provider sending a class to a high school student in Boise could tap roughly $210 for a one-semester online class from the Boise district’s state funding stream, according to state estimates, while a provider sending the same online class to a student in Midvale could collect roughly $733 from that smaller district’s state funding.

“So I think if I were a provider, I would first concentrate on these districts where this credit is worth a lot more money,” Rep. Wendy Jaquet, D-Ketchum, who serves on the “Students Come First” technology task force charged with implementing the new laws, told state schools Superintendent Tom Luna during a task force meeting this week. “I wonder if you’ve explored the idea of a cap.”

The reform laws that Luna championed this year include a new focus on online learning; shifting funds from teacher and administrator salaries to technology boosts and merit-pay bonuses; and phasing in purchases of a laptop computer or other computing device for every Idaho high school student and teacher. A 2012 referendum will ask Idaho voters if they want to reject the new laws.

Luna said he didn’t think the funding-formula issue warranted changing the law. “We’ll learn a lot once these laws are in place, and I think that’s what we want to do, is learn from actual application of the laws, not make changes based on what we think may happen,” he said. “I don’t think we’ve seen a perfect law yet.”

However, Luna agreed to bring the issue back for the task force to discuss further at its next meeting in November.

The school reform law allows students or their parents to enroll a secondary school student in any approved online class, with or without their school district’s permission, starting in the fall of 2012. Then, the provider of the online class is entitled to two-thirds of that district’s state funding for the student for that class, while the district keeps one-third, to cover its costs for providing a classroom, a proctor, or other fixed costs for the student, who likely would take the online class on campus during the school day.

The state sends funds to school districts based on “average daily attendance,” or ADA; the new formula is dubbed “fractional ADA.” It would apply unless the school district has a contract with the online provider setting a different payment amount.

But there are many factors that cause ADA amounts to vary widely from one school district to the next. Those include the size of a school district, to reflect economies of scale in larger districts and fixed costs in smaller districts; the distribution of students across different age categories from kindergarten to high school; and the experience level of the district’s teachers and administrators, which also triggers differences in state funding.

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