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Tom Vander Ark

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Why States Should Contract With Multiple Providers

Posted: 09/13/11 11:42 AM ET

The Internet has improved the public provision of services in a variety of ways and it is beginning to transform public education. The power of personal digital learning suggests that it doesn't make sense to limit our children's opportunity to learn to a local school or geographically defined school district.

In the 19th century, America developed an idiosyncratic system of public education based on local control. While federal and state governments have aggregated degrees of control, U.S. education is still largely a local issue -- an unusual construct in the developed world. The growing potential of learning online requires us to rethink and revise how educational services are provisioned.

This week, Digital Learning Now, the advocacy initiative chaired by Governors Jeb Bush and Bob Wise, released a video in which I try to make the case for multiple statewide providers of educational services. I know the video won't be a YouTube favorite and that this won't be my favorite column with my friends working in public school districts.

The Digital Learning Now report suggests, "To maximize the potential of digital learning, states must provide a rich offering of providers that can cater to the diverse and distinctly unique needs of different students." That would include full time, part time, and specialized providers (e.g., special needs, advanced courses, foreign language).

A system of multiple providers requires that "States should set common-sense standards for entry, have a strong system of oversight and quality control, and foster a robust competitive environment where students can choose the provider who best meets their learning needs."
The report recommends taking advantage of the different benefits offered by public, not-for-profit and for-profit organizations. "Public providers were pioneers in digital learning and provide a record of proven success in providing supplemental education in partnership with school districts. Not-for-profits extend access and often make contributions to open education resources. Private providers have the capital to invest in development of high quality content, can administer comprehensive school management services and offer collaboration opportunities with their national network of students.

Extending educational options to the course level requires a new approach to school finance, one that is less dependent on local property taxes and is more need-based and performance-oriented (and a subject of future blogs). It will also require new strategies to ensure that every student receives a seamless web of support and, to the extent necessary, is plugged in to youth and family services in their community.

More educational options will require more feedback from students, parents, and teachers. A public resource like GreatSchools.net could be expanded to help parents and students make informed decisions about digital learning.

School districts will understandably oppose the idea of a multiple provider system but the opportunity to cost effectively improve services to students and families is worth pursuing.

 

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