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Some education leaders worry that a new law intended to give students more opportunities to take online classes will be difficult to implement, may limit students' educations and could hurt some schools in the long run.
Educators expressed their concerns to lawmakers at an Education Interim Committee meeting Wednesday. Beginning in the fall, the law would allow Utah students to take up to two courses online instead of at their regular schools. And whoever provides that online course either another school district or a charter school would get part of the money that would normally go to the student's home school district or charter.
The state school board will hold a special meeting on June 27 to pass a rule outlining how the program should work. But state education leaders told lawmakers Wednesday that while they support online education, certain aspects of the law might be troublesome.
According to the law, online classes would take the place of regular classes. Students, however, wouldn't have to take the online classes during the day, meaning they could potentially have nothing to do at school for up to two periods a day.
Some schools have already started telling parents interested in enrolling their children in the online program that they would have to pick up their children during that free period, then bring them back once it's over, said Sen. Howard Stephenson, R-Draper, who sponsored the bill that gave rise to the law.
Parent Jennifer Scott said that's what she was told when she asked her son's school about enrolling him in two online courses during the next school year.
She said her son, who will be in ninth grade, wants to take the online classes partly to avoid a certain teacher. She said she wants him to continue attending his traditional school, but she also wants him to benefit from the advantages of online classes.
"I want the best of both worlds," Scott said. But she said her son won't be able to enroll in the online classes if she has to pick him up from school during the two free periods he'd have as a result.
"That's just not a viable option for us to be making four trips to the school every single day so he can participate in this program," she said.
Stephenson said it seems as if some districts are making parents "jump through a lot of hoops" to participate. The idea behind the law is to give students and parents more choices to better serve their needs.
"I guess we didn't anticipate this type of what appears to be hostility by district high schools against online providers that are not their own district," Stephenson said.
But education leaders told lawmakers Wednesday that it's a real problem because schools are liable for students during the day.
"That is not a hostility issue," said Patti Harrington, of the Utah School Boards Association and Utah School Superintendents Association. "It's an issue of how can we make sure those kids are safe and taken care of."
State Superintendent Larry Shumway said it seems as if no one anticipated that the bill might require schools to hire someone to supervise students during those free periods.
Some school leaders also worry about having to send money they would typically get for a student to an online provider instead more than $700 for each student who takes one online class.
Steve Whitehouse, chief financial officer at Karl G. Maeser Preparatory Academy, a Lindon charter school, worried about trying to set a school budget without knowing how many students might use the online option. And he said schools have certain fixed costs such as teachers, buildings and classrooms that don't change just because a few students take online courses for part of the day.
"We have no way to reduce expenses for these students," Whitehouse said.
He added that if even 50 Maeser students chose to take online classes, the school would lose about $75,000, an amount roughly equal to the school's total discretionary budget for supplies.
Stephenson, however, said lawmakers tried to leave school districts some money. The approximately $700 is about 77 percent of what a charter high school receives per student for one-eighth of the day, he said. Stephenson said lawmakers agreed not to take 100 percent so schools could still have some money to cover other services such as counseling and student supervision.
"What I'm hoping is that schools ... realizing that 23 percent of the money has been left with them, they will provide a study hall or something, some space for these students to be monitored," Stephenson said.
Judi Clark, executive director for Parents for Choice in Education, said the law "puts the emphasis on the needs of the students."
Stephenson said lawmakers will also look this year at possibly reimbursing online providers at different rates for different classes, as some types of classes are more costly than others.
Before the law passed, Utah students could already take online courses through Utah Electronic High School, which will still be in place this school year. Some lawmakers, however, have pushed to end state funding for Utah Electronic High School, hoping instead to possibly make it compete for funding with other online providers under the new law.
But some state education officials worry that could limit students' ability to take extra classes outside the typical eight periods for example, to make up classes they failed.
State board members are still working on the rule they'll vote on later this month, state education leaders said.