Online Learning Makes Every Year Count

By Mary Gifford

Public education has both a mission and an obligation to our children. Its number one goal should be to give them an equal opportunity to not only succeed, but to excel in their post-school lives.

Policymakers, educators and parents struggle with exactly how to meet this obligation when students are increasingly academically at-risk and public school resources must stretch further to meet diverse student needs. Despite these challenges, Arizona has, through student-centered education policy changes, created an abundance of schooling options to deliver on the promise of public education. And, equally important, the resultant school choices have allowed us to begin reducing major disparities in the educational opportunities available to students who do not thrive in traditional school environments.

But school choice is only the first step.

To truly realize the mission of public education, we need to reach out to parents to educate them about the choices available to them and their children. Providing choice is of limited value if we cannot ensure our students end up in the school that is best suited to meet their specific educational needs.

School choice has too often been seen as synonymous with the availability of charter schools. But public online institutions are an equally important learning option. I served on the Arizona State Board for Charter Schools for 11 years, and in that time, I saw that charter schools alone simply can’t bridge the opportunity gap for our children. Many students in Arizona and elsewhere do not live in areas with easy access to alternative charter schools or other brick-and-mortar schooling options. For these learners and their families, public online schools may be the only public schools of choice.   

Personalization Doesn’t Only Happen in Person

Online education can offer a personalized learning experience to students that can be difficult to replicate in traditional schools. Students have a great deal of flexibility over the pace of their learning. And they have access to resources their parents demand: college courses, dual-credit classes, and career and technical training programs that can lead to jobs in emerging industries.

So if online schools are truly “schools of last resort” for students in areas where school choice isn’t widely available, we have a responsibility to ensure that they provide the very best learning experience possible. Thankfully, organizations such as the Foundation for Blended and Online Learning, of which I’m a proud board member, are dispelling the myths surrounding the efficacy of online education. The testimonials of our rural student scholars show that online learning makes every year in a child’s education count.

Mary Gifford is the chief operating officer at StrongMind. Previously, was the senior vice president for academic policy and external relations at K12 Inc. She serves on the board of directors for the Foundation for Blended and Online Learning, the Arizona Chamber of Commerce, the Phoenix Chamber of Commerce, and as the board president of EdKey, an Arizona-based nonprofit charter management organization.