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Taking Shackles off Georgia’s Digital Learning Virtual School

Mike Klein

Georgia legislators have begun to remove shackles that prevented the Georgia Virtual School from achieving its vast potential to help connect students with digital learning.  Two bills would fix a flawed funding model, prohibit schools from blocking students who want to enroll in GAVS courses, and create an expanded clearinghouse of courses available statewide.

Legislation (SB 289) to fix the funding formula and significantly expand student access to digital learning has passed the Senate and this week it received unanimous voice vote approval in a House education committee hearing.  Legislation (HB 175) to create the state clearinghouse of online course offerings has passed the House and Senate.

Senate Majority Leader Chip Rogers sponsored SB 289.   As originally drafted, the bill required that each incoming student who begins his or her freshman year during the 2014 – 2015 school year would need to complete at least one online digital learning course prior to graduation.

The requirement to complete at least one course is now gone, but the intention remains strong. “I don’t think that’s such a big problem but I understand others do so we’re just saying it’s going to be available and we certainly want to encourage our (local school) systems to use it as much as they can,” Rogers said.

Georgia Virtual School has been a successful but nonetheless somewhat timid foray into digital learning.  GAVS is located inside the state department of education.  Seven years ago it began to offer a limited schedule of supplemental courses to students statewide.  GAVS is extremely valuable to students who need courses that are not offered locally, for instance, advanced placement and science courses.

But Georgia Virtual School enrollments were limited to just a few thousand per year by the General Assembly, and students could not enroll in GAVS courses unless they had permission from their local school system.  A state audit published in December 2010 reported that some local school systems admitted they would deny permission because they did not want to lose state funds.

The funding formula problem was addressed in the Senate legislation sponsored by Rogers.    Under the existing format a local school loses all state funds when a student selects a GAVS course over one offered in the local school.  Under the new formula the state would keep a portion of the cost up to $250 but the school would still receive up to $400.  In effect, the school wins $400 if the student is using GAVS resources.

Senate Majority Leader Chip Rogers

Senate Bill 289 is also explicit about guaranteeing student access:  “A local school system shall not prohibit any student from taking a course through the Georgia Virtual School, regardless of whether the school in which the student is enrolled offers the same course.”

House Bill 175 will create a vehicle for local school systems and charter schools to share their online learning resources.  For example, Cobb County and Gwinnett County have extensive digital learning resources that they would be able to register with the state clearinghouse. These courses could be available to any student anywhere in Georgia.

Many education bills are working their way through the State Capitol, including the charter schools constitutional amendment resolution and a substantial reworking of the state funding formula, unchanged since 1985.  The digital learning bills have not received quite the same headlines as others but their potential impact to change how millions of Georgia students learn is vast.  Rogers estimated the number of GAVS students could grow from 15,000 next year to 100,000 in just a few years.

“Sometimes we forget the major role of education is to prepare our students for a future outside the classroom,” Rogers said.  “I think society in general has moved in that direction at a very rapid rate.  If a student takes anywhere from 48 to 60 classes over a four-year period in high school that one of them be a digital class is probably good for their preparation.”

(Mike Klein is Editor at the Georgia Public Policy Foundation)

March 15, 2012 Posted by | Uncategorized | , , , , , | Leave a comment

Making The Grade: A Must See Film About Georgia School Choice

Mike Klein

The Georgia school choice story sometimes appears to need new faces and voices other than the usual suspects – politicians, teachers, charter school leaders and, yes, even policy folks who continue to push the pedal for increased school choice options.

Many new faces and voices tell their stories in a terrific film that will premiere Thursday evening at the Cobb Galleria Centre with remote showings at locations statewide.  “Making the Grade in Georgia: Educational Freedom and Justice for All” packs a lot into one half-hour.  Regardless of where you stand on school choice, this film should be watched because it educates.

Thursday’s Cobb Galleria Centre premiere is free to the public.  The Making the Grade in Georgia website has details plus information about live streaming locations scheduled in Albany, Ellijay, Rome and Atlanta.  The film was commissioned by Americans for Prosperity Foundation – Georgia.

“When parents choose then schools compete,” says Virginia Galloway, state director of AFP – Georgia. “When schools compete everybody wins because we have better options to offer the kids in Georgia.”  AFP – Georgia retained Atlanta TeleProductions to produce the documentary.

Much is at stake in the Georgia school choice movement.  Last spring the state Supreme Court overturned the charter schools commission.  Governor Nathan Deal approved a $10.9 million rescue that enabled several existing schools to open this year.  The future of Georgia charter schools authorization will be back before the General Assembly starting next week.

Now about new faces and voices in Making the Grade:  You will meet Jewel Faison, executive director at A School for Children in Albany.  “We provide multi-age, non-graded learning environments for children between the ages of seven to 17.  That means we get back to the one-room school house where everybody is important and every need is met,” says Faison.

“We’re not a school for children with difficulties.  We’re a school for children.  However, we have an opportunity to serve children that have had difficulties,” says Faison.  “When I see those childrens’ lives transformed … when they can begin to take correction and not respond negatively that is very impactful to me.  That gets me up in the morning.”

You will meet Perry Everson, a student at Pataula Charter Academy in Edison.  “We get to do this hands-on learning.  You just don’t sit there and copy all these things out of your textbook and memorize all these notes.  You get to go and actually do it.  It’s really helped me learn a lot more because you get to do it and once you do it, it really sticks in your brain.”

You will meet Kim Whipple, mother of eight.  Two are in college, one attends private school and five attend Georgia Cyber Academy.  “For those people who want to home school but don’t feel quite comfortable in doing that on their own… this is a perfect option,” Whipple says.

You will meet Morgan Giesler.  The young musical artist has her own website, five songs on iTunes; she recently recorded in Nashville and Morgan will be in Los Angeles this month to pursue her acting and singing.  Morgan is a hybrid school pupil; she studies at home and in a supervised setting.

“If you have a kid who is not having to go to the theater, doing singing, dancing, all this stuff, if they enjoy their public school and they like it, I think they should go there,” says Morgan.  “But if they don’t enjoy it and they are doing other things I think that is when you should move them.”  Her proud mother, Dina Giesler, says Morgan “is thriving.”

By some estimates, 1.5 million adult Georgians do not have a high school diploma.  More than 60,000 high school seniors failed to graduate on-time in 2010.  Our statewide high school graduation rate, about 65 percent on-time, puts Georgia in the bottom five of all 50 states.

“Our education system, I’m going to put it in my vernacular, is jacked up from the floor up.  It’s broken,” says Melvin Everson, chairman of Georgia’s EEOC.  “I support my public schools but we have to come to the realization, one size doesn’t fit all.  Home school, private school, public school, charter school; whatever it takes to educate this workforce, we better do it.”

The film says about three-in-ten Georgia students in lower grades achieve basic proficiency in reading and math.  “The impact of this is that the societal divide widens between the haves and the have nots,” says Jerri Nims Rooker, director at the Center for an Educated Georgia.

The long-term economic impact of an under-educated population is well documented:  lower lifetime earnings, higher unemployment and other social needs.  “We’re just losing generations of, especially, young minority males,” Georgia Tech economist Christine Ries says in the film.

Major players who support school choice are present.  “The challenges are enormous but we have to win this issue,” says Senate Majority Leader Chip Rogers. “If we’re going to be competitive economically we’ve got to improve all schools,” says Georgia Public Policy Foundation president Kelly McCutchen.  “That’s why we believe in school choice.”

Making the Grade begins with the premise that school choice is good for Georgia and it stays on the point.  The film acknowledges Georgia public education progress in many sectors – special needs and tax credits scholarships, and the increased use of technology everywhere in learning – but it equally makes the point that not everyone has the same access.

“Success is when we have our students developing strong problem-solving skills, critical thinking skills,” says Steven Walker, CEO at Tech High School in Atlanta.  “You’re going to collaborate and learn how to work with each other and you’re going to learn how to communicate well and you’re going to be very respectful and understanding of your community as a citizen.  The biggest thing that we are proud of is we are preparing them to be successful.”

AFP – Georgia plans to make DVDs of Making the Grade available statewide.  Discussions are underway that could result in television broadcasts.  Thursday evening’s Cobb Galleria Centre and satellite viewing locations are open to the public.  The movie will also be streamed onto the documentary website at www.makingthegrademovie.com.

(Mike Klein is Editor at the Georgia Public Policy Foundation)

January 4, 2012 Posted by | Uncategorized | , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment