A new survey intended to evaluate online-learning policies and practices from coast to coast reveals significant growth in state and district support for this instructional model at the K-12 level. At least 25 states now lead statewide online-learning initiatives, according to the survey, which is a dramatic increase from the 15 states driving programs only a year ago.

For the annual survey, conducted by e.Republic’s Center for Digital Education (CDE) and titled “Online Learning Policy and Practice Survey: A Survey of the States,” education officials from 44 states provided insight into the status of online learning in their states.

The results were released Nov. 16 in conjunction with the International Association for K-12 Online Learning’s (iNACOL’s) annual Virtual School Symposium, taking place in Austin, Texas, this year.

“Online learning remains one of the most powerful and transformative mediums for U.S. education,” said Marina Leight, CDE’s vice president of education. “This year’s review of policy revealed some exciting changes among the states. We applaud the policy makers across the nation who are driving the creation of new programs, and commend the leaders with already-existing programs who continue to ensure online learning is a top priority.”

The survey highlights state approaches to online education by looking at key areas such as program offerings, funding, policies, enrollment trends, course offerings, K-20 ventures, teacher licensing, and reform efforts. It also ranks the success of state online-learning initiatives and serves as a benchmark for other states and their programs.

According to the CDE, the rankings reflect the online-learning vision, policies, programs, and strategies that states have deployed in an effort to meet the needs of students.

The organization used iNACOL’s definition of state-led online programs, which are programs created by state legislation or by a state-level agency, administered by a state education agency, and/or directly funded by a state appropriation or grant for the purpose of providing online-learning opportunities across the state.

Full-time online programs are defined as online-learning programs in which students enroll and earn credit toward academic advancement following the successful completion of the course. In addition, CDE defines statewide programs as those providing accessibility to students throughout the entire state.

The survey revealed that at least 27 states have statewide online-learning initiatives–two of the states have statewide programs in place that are not led by the state itself–and another four states have plans to implement online-learning programs soon.

For the second year in a row, CDE named Florida as the No. 1 state in online education. Its statewide program, the Florida Virtual School, boasts nearly 125,000 students and saw a 25-percent increase in attendance in the last year, according to the survey.

Rounding out the top 10 states in CDE’s rankings are South Carolina, New Mexico, Hawaii, Michigan, Louisiana, Idaho, Minnesota, Oregon, and Arkansas.

What the states revealed

In terms of funding, nine states with state-led virtual schools fund their online institutions using the same formula that traditional schools use to receive funding.

These state-led virtual schools differ from their traditional counterparts in that, in addition to the formula funding, the institutions often receive tuition funding either from the district level or from students.

For example, Colorado has a unique funding structure for its statewide virtual school. Colorado operates a supplemental statewide online institution, though it is technically a nonprofit organization. Because it is regarded as a supplemental school, it receives a formula-based appropriation from the state. The school also charges the districts of participating students on a per-student, per-semester basis.

Full-time online charter schools are funded in a variety of ways, but typically they are funded by the state at the same rate as on-site charter schools. In some cases, their funding is based on enrollment levels.

The greatest variety in funding strategies for online-learning programs resides within states that allow district-run online programs.

One innovative state, Nebraska, has established a way for high schools to be reimbursed up to $20,000 on a one-time basis if they have students enrolled in distance education. An additional $1,000 is provided per each online course completed. These reimbursement funds are awarded by the state on Sept. 1 for the prior year’s coursework.

CDE predicts that innovative funding strategies will become commonplace in the coming years, as states look to address general-fund issues and deal with budget constraints. In Alaska, this is already occurring, as the state plans to use federal stimulus funds to establish a statewide virtual school.

In terms of enrollment, 22 states with statewide online-learning programs experienced a spike in enrollment over the past year. Six states saw their virtual-school enrollment increase by more than 50 percent, and another six states saw enrollment increase between 25 and 50 percent.

One of the largest increases in online enrollment for the 2008-09 school year happened in Mississippi, which saw its numbers grow from 5,000 to 7,000 students.

CDE predicts that growth in online-learning programs will continue to increase as more programs are implemented, more grade levels are covered, and more courses are offered.

According to the survey, 27 states indicated that online learning is in their strategy for school reform.

Within these states, online-learning programs are used to enhance the curriculum offered to students, increase student access to high-quality instruction, and/or address teacher shortages or overcrowded classrooms.

Online programs are having a major impact in rural areas. According to CDE, it has been difficult in the past for small, rural districts to find highly qualified teachers for certain subjects, such as advanced math or science courses. The survey reveals that state policy makers believe online courses have allowed rural students to take courses they otherwise would not have access to.

For example, New Hampshire has issued a set of Extended Learning Opportunity guidelines that note the importance of online education.

However, CDE’s findings also revealed there are many obstacles that states face when trying to move forward with online education–and many of these are connected to funding.

States with a large number of school districts have more trouble implementing
statewide online-learning policies and programs than states with fewer districts, the survey found. In these large states, it’s important to have strong, centralized state leadership in place to move forward with online learning.

“Nevertheless, despite the current economic state of the country, online learning will continue to expand its reach,” said the survey. “As the number of models for online education increase and students and teachers grow comfortable with their new education
tools, online learning will be on its way to becoming an integral piece of the U.S. education system.”

The report also details the number of students served in each state, as well as course offerings, K-20 ventures, licensure reciprocity, and more. It was underwritten by Blackboard Inc. and was produced with the advice and consultation of iNACOL.

Links:

Center for Digital Education

e.Republic

Blackboard Inc.

iNACOL