California's Online 'Bill Of Rights' Expands High School Digital Learning

Students whose high schools don't offer the required courses or enough sections to qualify them for admission to the University of California or California State University would have a right to take those courses online, under an initiative that sponsors are targeting for next November's ballot.

The California Student Bill of Rights would greatly expand high school online education, while breaking down geographic and other barriers that are denying many rural and urban students equal opportunities to attend a four-year public university. If their schools don't offer AP history, or if calculus conflicts with their schedules, they could take the course through another publicly funded program. The initiative would also create a California Diploma for students who have accumulated the credits, known as A-G, for entry into UC or CSU, however and wherever they've taken the courses -- in school, online, in one or more districts.

Two leaders behind the initiative are administrators at Riverside Unified School District: Superintendent Rick Miller and David Haglund, principal of Riverside Virtual School, the largest district-run online school in the state. Both say they are acting as private individuals at this point, and the initiative's website doesn't identify their affiliation.

The initiative, said Haglund, "will create a right of access. ZIP codes should not determine college readiness -- not with technologies that have the ability to deliver synchronous and asynchronous learning environments."

The academic performance of students in online courses has been mixed nationwide, with recent studies in Pennsylvania, Colorado, and Minnesota concluding that online students generally did worse than students in traditional courses. The California initiative would impose requirements on online providers that would address concerns about quality:

  • The courses would need to be certified by the University of California as A-G eligible;
  • The online provider - which could be a district, charter school, community college, or private provider under contract with a district - would have to be accredited;
  • The teacher would need to have a California teaching credential or the equivalent if a college instructor;
  • The online provider would be required to document student work, and students would have to pass a proctored end-of-year exam.

"These are high bars but not insurmountable," Haglund said. "Quality is our highest concern."

The initiative would leave it to the state Department of Education to create regulations governing payments between providers and districts and verification of work performed. The provider of an online chemistry course could contract with the students' home districts to offer the lab work and to proctor exams, for example.


Haglund said he would propose tying tuition payments to online providers to student performance, as is being done in Florida. A quarter of the payment would be eligible only if a student got a C in the course; the final 25 percent should be tied to passage of the final exam, as determined by the state, he said.

The initiative has been submitted to the Attorney General's Office; signature gathering is expected to begin in December. Haglund, who chairs Education Forward, the nonprofit organizing the initiative, won't say who'll fund it until checks start coming in, but he expects to receive support from education foundations and business executives in Orange County and Silicon Valley. He assumes he'll be able to raise the $25 million needed to run a successful campaign.

Riverside Virtual School serves about 115 full-time students, with between 2,500 and 3,200 students from Riverside Unified and other districts taking courses. But state restrictions on online providers have hindered online growth. California ranked last in a new rating of states' openness to online learning by Digital Learning Now! -- a project of the Foundation for Excellence in Education, headed by former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, and the Alliance for Excellent Education, a nonprofit headed by former Democratic Gov. Bob Wise of West Virginia.

The Bill of Rights would push aside some obstacles, including a restriction that limits an online provider to offering courses only in the county in which it's located and contiguous counties. Online providers aren't automatically entitled to tuition for part-time students; they must negotiate payments with the students' home districts. Full-time online schools are classified as independent study operations with strict student-teacher ratios.

Haglund acknowledged that the initiative reflects frustration over failed efforts to amend restrictions on online learning, the latest being AB 802, sponsored by Assembymember Bob Blumenfield, a Democrat from San Fernando Valley. There will be another legislative effort next year.

The Student Bill of Rights initiative "is not intended to be leverage (for passing a bill), but if it became leverage to get the Legislature to do the right thing, we would be happy with the outcome. This is just the first step," Haglund said, to opening up online learning in California.

John Fensterwald is the editor and co-writer of, a blog on California education policy. Follow him on Twitter (@jfenster) and at