Backpack Funding Could Bridge Colorado's K-12 Digital Learning Divide

Our friends at Education Next pose an interesting chicken-or-egg question about digital learning and the case for major education reforms: Will the transformative technology unleash itself, or does major work need to be done overhauling K-12 policies and institutions first?

To hash out the details, Education Next has unleashed a couple of the leading lights in education reform to give a point-counterpoint online debate. In the end, though, any disparities between the arguments advanced by the Fordham Institute’s Checker Finn and the Innosight Institute’s Michael Horn appear to me more differences of degree than differences of kind.

Finn says we need to overhaul the school finance system — allowing us to fund students, rather than bureaucratic programs and institutions — and traditional “local control” governance “when students assemble their education from multiple providers based in many locations, some likely on the other side of the planet.”

A nod to the first project is underway in Colorado, though the School Finance Partnership appears well too confined by traditional interests to make a bold enough plan come to life — a plan that eventually would challenge the “local control” notion itself. Of course, here in Colorado, the notion of local school board control is embedded in the state Constitution. So how do we push toward a system that makes the control even more local?

Policies like those proposed in the Independence Institute’s issue paper “Online Course-Level Funding” would open wide the doors of student access to high-quality instruction and content through broad digital choices, while retaining the important human element of education. A centerpiece of those changes is “backpack funding,” which enables students to direct shares of dollars to a school or even divide them among a wide range of digital and brick-and-mortar course offerings.

In his piece, Horn agrees that centerpiece is essential, noting that “enabling dollars to follow students is critical for digital learning and is impossible to do without having some impact on the existing system.” Other changes, he says, like assigning a share of dollars to educational providers based on successful performance are something that don’t need to be applied beyond the online sector.

Past examples of “disruptive innovation” suggest that digital learning can overtake and transform learning delivery on a major scale by first proving its success within a niche market of students. Sounds good to me. Examples are popping up throughout Colorado, but there is still a long way to go.

Finn places more emphasis on engaging in a political fight to transform policies and Horn believes that a great deal can be accomplished by sidestepping several battles and let a small innovative place take hold in the online sector. But allowing money to follow the student is the vital piece we all can agree on. Let’s do it, Colorado!