Virtual schools coming to every Alabama school system by 2016-2017
Sen. Dick Brewbaker, R-MontgomeryMike Cason | firstname.lastname@example.org
Online courses are not new to Alabama public schools, but lawmakers say the state is barely tapping the potential.
The Legislature is trying to spark a surge in virtual school options.
Every Alabama school system would be required to establish a policy to offer some level of virtual school for high school students by the 2016-2017 academic year under a bill lawmakers passed Thursday.
“It's not a solution for everybody,” said Sen. Dick Brewbaker, R-Montgomery, sponsor of the bill. “But for a certain population of students, it's a really good option.”
Alabama launched the ACCESS distance learning program during Gov. Bob Riley's administration. Students can take classes that aren't available at their schools, like advanced courses and electives.
ACCESS uses some live video feeds of classroom teachers. But most of the courses are taught through web-based programs, said Malissa Valdes-Hubert, spokeswoman for the state Department of Education.
Students turn in their work and communicate with teachers online.
As of April 24, more than 27,000 students were enrolled in ACCESS, which is available in all high schools and some middle schools.
Brewbaker said he hears complaints from superintendents about ACCESS, including the quality of courses.
The Department of Education, in response to the senator's criticism, said it “continually strives to make ACCESS courses as engaging and rigorous as possible” and responds when problems are identified by teachers.
Brewbaker's bill would create a task force to study and make recommendations on improving ACCESS.
But while improving the state program is important, Brewbaker said it's vital for local school systems to launch their own initiatives not necessarily bound to the state program.
“Local boards have to do something because online education is here to stay,” Brewbaker said. “In a couple of years, you'll know what the best models are.”
A student enrolled in a virtual program would count as attending the local school in determining per-student funding.
Virtual school students would be required to take the same standardized assessments as other students.
They could participate in sports and other extracurricular activities at the school they are zoned for.
Local school boards would have wide latitude. They could hire a commercial vendor, contract with another school board or a university or rely on ACCESS.
“We tried not to be too specific as to what that would look like because we recognize that every single school district in the state of Alabama is unique in its origin and its community,” said Rep. Ed Henry, R-Hartselle, who handled Brewbaker's bill in the House of Representatives.
The Alabama Association of School Boards had a task force study virtual schools and supports the legislation, AASB Executive Director Sally Howell said.
“I think this will be an incubator of great ideas,” Howell said.
She said it's important that school systems can set their own criteria for student participation.
She said virtual school would probably not be the best option for a student who struggles with reading, for example.
Howell said the virtual school option could encourage some parents who have taken their children from public schools to return.
Brewbaker said some parents have turned to private school or home school for reasons other than academics, reasons that could be negated by virtual school.
“They may not want their kid on a bus for two hours, or may have safety concerns,” Brewbaker said.
The House passed the bill 82-20 on Thursday, sending it to Gov. Robert Bentley.
The governor had not signed it into law as of Friday. The governor's office said it was reviewing the bill.
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