Florida legislators have strapped school districts with yet another expensive unfunded mandate. Gov. Rick Scott signed into law this year legislation that requires high school students to take at least one online class to graduate. The law went into effect this term and affects incoming freshmen.
The measure seems benign at first blush, but it will unduly stress districts that do not have deep pockets and other resources.
School district officials I have spoken with around the state see nothing wrong with the intent of the new law. The digital age is here to stay, and its demands are inescapable, affecting every corner of education and life in general. Students headed to college will be expected to be computer-savvy and independent enough to conduct research and complete courses online. In the workplace, employees have to take webinars and other computer-based training to keep their jobs.
The problem for many districts is that they now must spend money they do not have on new computer labs so that students who lack Internet access at home can satisfy the online course requirement. This is certainly true for rural districts that rarely have sufficient dollars for anything, and Tallahassee is doing next to nothing to help them offset the costs of computers and lab space.
Rural Highlands County, which has 11,952 students, is a prime example of a district facing hardship. J. Ned Hancock, a Highlands school board member, told Highlands Today that under the new law, students who do not have computers at home will have great difficulty fitting everything that is required, such as homework or a missed assignment, into one class period in on-campus computer labs.
He said the district is seeking help from the federal Race to the Top program that has funds slated for technology. If the Race to the Top application fails, officials do not know what they will do.
Highlands plans to implement tutoring sessions after school on Wednesdays and from 8 a.m. to noon on Saturdays when computers will be available for students to complete their online classes. The sessions are after-hours and not required, and officials are hoping students will attend voluntarily.
Unlike the Highlands County district and some large urban ones, Pinellas County, the nation's 24th-largest district with 101,000 students, does not foresee serious problems complying with the new law.
"This is a trend Pinellas County schools really saw coming, and even before the mandate, we have been attempting to bridge the digital divide that exists for those students who do not have access at home," John Just, the district's assistant superintendent for management information systems, wrote in an e-mail message. "With an Enhancing Education through Technology program competitive grant we received last year, we were able to equip some of our neediest high schools with equipment for before- and afterschool programs to access online courses from Florida Virtual School or Pinellas Virtual School."
Just said the district also has been working with local community organizations such as public libraries to train their staff members on the school district's computer system. The goal is to ensure that people outside the schools can help students with their online requirements and be willing to give students priority access to their services.
Last spring, Lakewood High's Center for Advanced Technologies offered students a semesterlong course in computer applications in science and mathematics. Those who succeeded received a quality point toward their grade-point average and a half credit toward the 24 credits needed for graduation.
"Online classes can be a very powerful tool for students, and we are committed to all students having access," Just said.
He knows, too, that Pinellas and a handful of other large districts will not suffer like rural districts in trying to comply with the state's newest unfunded mandate for public education.
"Times are very tight," he said, "and that means being very creative."
While rural leaders such as Highlands County's Hancock may envy districts with the wealth to be creative, he knows that being creative is difficult when the public coffers are low and probably will remain low for a long time.