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Education choice continues to flower in Utah

Written by Derek Monson

July 22, 2022

This month bring additional evidence that Utah’s virtual school programs are serving thousands of Utah students and their families in ways that traditional, in-person school never could.

Last month, I wrote a post about The Salt Lake Tribune’s coverage of the growth of Jordan Virtual Learning Academy – an online, virtual public school system serving K-12 students, run by Jordan School District. The Tribune’s story offered concrete examples of students whose specific health, family, work and social circumstances meant that traditional, in-person school failed to meet their learning needs. But these students thrived when offered the chance to participate in school digitally – at their own time, place and pace.

At the time, I speculated that “perhaps the growth and success of virtual schools in Utah point toward a day when we will be able to accept the practical realities and ethical implications of the natural differences between students and how they learn, and then enact policies that reflect those realities.” Additional news coverage of the growth of online school is backing me up.

Utah public radio station KUER recently covered the launch of Canyons School District’s new online elementary and middle school to complement its 11-year-old virtual high school – part of KUER’s ongoing coverage of online school growth. This virtual public school system will be available not only to students in the district, but also to students in rural Utah who may gain access through this program to specialized classes that their school district can’t offer in person.

The principal of Canyons’ online high school describes its approach as “tapping into that style that works best for [students].” Those best served by this approach include students who do their best schoolwork outside the traditional school day, who have jobs, or who are in non-typical living situations (e.g., living abroad).

The growth of online programs doesn’t make the digital approach inherently superior to in-person learning, nor does it mean that it will be the best for every student. Rather, combined with the fact of the natural differences between students – including life circumstances and learning styles – it simply adds evidence to support the conclusion that a public education system that aspires to serve the learning needs of Utah students must embrace digital learning and ensure broad access to it across the state.

For those who seek to ground their thinking in real-world reality and concrete evidence – rather than ideology and politics – education choice in the form of digital learning should be (or should become) a basic offering of public education. One silver lining of the COVID pandemic is how it has illuminated this conclusion by forcing public schools to innovate to meet the needs of remote learning – normalizing the tools and practices of digital learning and virtual schools in the process.

As new online school offerings continue to grow – fueled by the demand of families thriving in the digital learning environment – it should offer reasonable and thoughtful Utahns the chance to reflect on the value and power of education choice, properly understood. We can argue over our ideological commitments to the idea of tax dollars going to private schools or the need to protect public school funding. But as a matter of sound evidence and basic fact, it is becoming increasingly hard to deny that expanding practical access to education choice will help many struggling students thrive in school.

If our devotion to public education is driven by our desire to see children learn and succeed in life, the fact that ed choice is helping struggling students should be a big deal.

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