Wednesday, March 6, 2013

New Opportunities from Hillsboro's Online Academy

The Hillsboro Argus has published another of my guest editorials, this time talking about the new opportunities the district is giving up by refusing student transfers:


Many of us have been excited to hear about the opening of the Hillsboro Online Academy, a new alternative school in Hillsboro.

As a member of the Hillsboro School District's Curriculum Committee, I was recently given a tour of this new school, and was impressed with their organization and level of academic rigor. In its first year, the school attracted twice as many students as expected, and demand is likely to grow rapidly as they demonstrate success.

I was especially happy to see this due to the opportunities opened up by the state legislature in its 2011 education reforms. Under the new laws, a school can choose to accept transfer students from any district in the state, and they will bring most of their tax money with them.
Thus, when a district creates an innovative new program, not only will it help local students, but the district itself can gain a financial reward: a truly innovative school will become a profit center for the district, due to out-of-district transfer students. This is especially true of cost-efficient online schools. So an expanding Online Academy could contribute significantly towards solving HSD's budget woes.
Unfortunately, this is not an opportunity in Hillsboro currently -- because our district has entered into an explicit agreement with all the major nearby districts not to poach each other's students. (Yes, this is still the case, despite the board's deceptive February 2013 vote to "participate" in the state law.)
Why would they do this? Public schools are used to having a geographic monopoly, where each district is guaranteed perpetual control over students in a predetermined area. It provides a nice sense of security and stability to current employees, and they claim they need this guarantee for proper planning.  Yet millions of businesses all over the world -- including private K-12 schools-- live without this guarantee, subjecting themselves to marketplace competition, in order to receive the potential rewards of quality and innovation.

Apparently our district is terrified that the possibility of success also means the possibility of failure. Perhaps Hillsboro's offerings will not be the best, and we will lose students and tax money to neighboring districts. But what kind of message is this sending to our children? Should we always support the comfortable stability of continued mediocrity, over the risks of failure and potential of success that come with competition?

Sure, there is always the possibility that the district will lose money if it fails to deliver on its promises of quality and the students go elsewhere, but in such a case, I would argue that the district deserves its loss.

However, based on what I've seen, I think it's much more likely that the reverse would happen: Hillsboro's Online Academy would be a magnet for students all over northwest Oregon, and bring in a significant infusion of money to offset our budget woes and prevent teacher layoffs.   Entering into agreements that prevent this possibility is a disservice to all students in Hillsboro, as well as those in the surrounding areas that might benefit from our innovation. As we prepare to elect new school board members this May, we need to demand that they repudiate the multi-district agreement and truly carry out the spirit of the state education reforms.

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