A new state law that requires Florida high school students to take a class online is causing cash-strapped school districts to spend millions on new computers.
The new law requires incoming freshmen, beginning this school year, to take at least one course online prior to graduation.
School districts say that to meet this new requirement they will have to spend money on new computer labs so that students who do not have access to the Internet at home will be able to take online courses.
“Overall, I don’t think it is a bad idea for students because as they go forward there is a lot of online learning that is going to be expected of them,” said Highlands County school board member J. Ned Hancock. “Whether it is at the college level or the employment level, it seems like there are more and more Webinars and different continuing education done over the Internet and [that] are computer-based.”
That part of it is good; the bad part is the state hasn’t done anything to help local districts purchase more computers, he said.
Some students are going to find it hard to fit everything—such as homework or a missed assignment—that is required into one class period just in the computer lab, Mr. Hancock said.
He asked: How do you make that up if you don’t have access to a computer?
A significant amount of the money the district is looking to get from the federal Race to the Top grant is slated for technology.
But the 11,952-student district has not done everything to qualify for it yet, he said.
“If that happens to not work out, then we are going to be in that much worse position,” Mr. Hancock said.
Bad Budget Timing?
The state legislature had good intentions when it stipulated the online requirement, he said.
But with the current funding structure, now is not a good time to implement some of these programs in such a short time frame, Mr. Hancock said.
Avon Park High School freshman guidance counselor Ashley Ridenour said a letter has been sent to all ninth graders in the Highlands County schools about the new requirement.
“We want to make them aware of it as soon as possible, so they can go ahead and get it out of the way, so they don’t have to worry about it in their senior year,” she said.
There are concerns about whether some students will be good online learners, but the state is trying to prepare students for college where they will most likely have some online courses, Ms. Ridenour said.
During tutoring sessions after school on Wednesdays and from 8 a.m. to noon Saturdays, students will have the Internet available to them so they can do their virtual class and also receive help from the tutors, she said.
Highlands County is not alone with concerns about computers and lab space.
Most schools already have computer labs, said Chris McGuire, principal of Broward Virtual School, which is part of the 257,000-student Broward County school district. But the new law could force districts to buy additional computers and set up more labs for students who can only take an online class while on campus.
Pam McAuley, manager of instructional programs at the 195,000-student Hillsborough County School District, said the new requirement will place a burden on already crowded computer lab space.
“As we stand right now, there are no funds to add more computers or lab space,” Ms. McAuley said.
“We are going to have to get creative site by site and see what kind of lab space they have.”
This shift from requiring districts to offer online courses as an option, to mandating that students take an online course prior to graduation, is a huge policy change, educators said.
In Broward County, which educators said offers one of the best virtual education programs in the state, one study reported that, at most, only 20 percent of high school seniors graduate having taken an online course.
The News Service of Florida contributed to this article.
Copyright © 2011. McClatchy Tribune Information Services
A version of this article appeared in the September 21, 2011 edition of Education Week as E-Learning Rule Adds Tech. Costs for Fla. Districts