The latest effort to expand online learning in the state - House Bill 426 - unanimously cleared the House Education Committee last week with the promise that qualified students would be able to complete the eight years from seventh grade through their sophomore year of college in only six. It's certainly an interesting proposition, and one that bill author Steve Thayn, R-Emmett, says could save both the state and parents money.
To summarize, the bill would have the state pay for a portion of up to eight additional classes "mostly online" so that students could leave high school with up to two years of college credits. That's right: the state would pay up to $225 per overload class per student per semester. If this seems inconsistent with Thayn's argument that the program would save the state money, you're not alone in seeing the disconnect.
In reality, Thayn's estimate of the annual cost to state taxpayers is between $2.25 and $2.9 million in 2013 with the possibility that the number could grow by nearly 70 percent in future years. Rep. Donna Pence, D-Gooding, asked - we hope rhetorically - if the 8 in 6 program would stretch the public education budget even further.
Well, of course it would, but that's not the primary reason we should view the program skeptically. The larger question - indeed the sole important question - is whether there is any evidence that it will work.
Will "8 in 6" increase the percentage of Idaho high school graduates who attend college? That number, currently 34.4 percent, is fifth-lowest in the country.
Will "8 in 6" increase the percentage of Idaho college freshmen who return to college for their sophomore year? That number, 63.5 percent, is lowest of all 50 states.
Will "8 in 6" increase the percentage of Idaho students entering college who graduate within eight years? That number, 43.1 percent, is second-lowest in the nation.
And finally, will the authors of "8 in 6" finally provide the evidence lacking throughout the Students Come First debate that mandating online classes actually improves educational outcomes?
Armed with evidence that similar programs in other states have increased college attendance and graduation, the program is worth a second look. Armed with evidence that students taking online classes in high school perform better in college, the program is worth a second look.
However, if it's just another attempt to trumpet "innovation" while stirring up discord between teachers and the use of technology, we should be extremely wary.
John Wilson, former executive director of the National Education Association and an advocate of online learning, had this to say last week on his Education Week blog: "We are at a critical point in moving to digital learning and teaching in the 21st century. It requires conversation with teachers and their unions. It must be accompanied by high quality professional development. Politicians cannot pit teachers against technology, especially in funding priorities. Yes, I am talking about Idaho."
In debating the "8 in 6" Program, let's get teachers - both high school and college - involved from the start. And in debating "8 in 6," let's not fixate on its costs but rather the proven results that other states have experienced by implementing similar programs. Absent that evidence, "8 in 6" should be deep-sixed.
Percentages cited in this editorial are taken from the College Completion Agenda 2011 Progress Report complied annually by the College Board's Advocacy and Policy Center.