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Sixteen-year-old Abdi Buul might log in to his chemistry class while sitting at his aunt’s pizzeria off University Avenue. Or he might stop in to see a teacher in Old Town to ask about geometry.

“You’re not under a schedule. I don’t have to go at 8 and come out at 4,” said Buul, who enrolled in iHigh Virtual Academy, an online school in the San Diego Unified School District. “I’ll do my assignments whenever I feel like it.”

Buul is getting his high school degree like any teen. But he is also testing out a new way of educating kids — taking classes online — that clashes with the way that schools traditionally count students and get paid by the state. In California, schools usually get funded by keeping track of who shows up to school, something one official dubbed “butts in seats.” If kids are in classrooms, schools get the money.

But if kids are learning online, it gets more complex. Schools must either slog through extensive paperwork to prove kids are putting in enough time — through an independent study system designed long before online learning — or keep kids in regular classes for most of the day before cutting them loose to go online.

Educators argue the old accounting system wasn’t built for the digital classroom. More than 800 San Diego Unified students took online classes with iHigh last year, some full time, some just part time. Superintendents argue online learning could spark interest from students who dislike the confines of a conventional school. They complain that the existing system inhibits schools from letting kids learn online.

“It’s ludicrous. The state of California pays for students to sit in a seat,” said Randy Ward, San Diego County’s superintendent of schools. “It has nothing to do with whether they’re learning anything.”

Schools can get funding in two ways. The easy way is butts in seats. The harder way is filling out a stack of paperwork to show a student is devoting the required time to classwork on their own. iHigh has to gather work samples, assignment lists and syllabi to show the state that teens like Buul are putting in the hours. A missing signature in a stack of papers could mean the school isn’t paid.

“A lot of times we have to make work to justify our attendance,” said Craig Russell, who teaches math and science for iHigh. Even though he knows a student has aced a class through quizzes and exams, he has to make them fill out a study sheet to prove they’ve logged the hours. “It ends up being busywork.”

To avoid all that paperwork and risk, other schools take the easy route, making sure a student has their butt in a seat for at least four hours — the bare minimum — so the school gets paid. Then they’re free to learn online afterwards. Poway Unified did that to offer digital classes in civics, health and automotive technology.

That crimps how much time kids spend online, since they have to put in at least four hours daily in conventional classes. Schools can also schedule students into online classes during the school day if they are directly overseen by a teacher in a classroom, but cramming it into the school day cuts back on the flexibility in online learning that Buul and his classmates relish.

All that adds up to a system that can make online learning feel like a chore for schools, at least when it comes to the accounting. A fledgling state bill aims to make it easier, allowing California schools to simply count online classes for attendance instead of going through more paperwork.

Right now, “there are disincentives to offer an online classroom,” said state Assemblyman Bob Blumenfield, a Democrat who represents San Fernando Valley communities, who introduced the bill. “This bill, in many ways, is revolutionary for California.”

Online students would need to put in the same hours as ordinary students, a disappointment to some online boosters because it still pegs education to time. But Ward and other backers, from San Diego Unified to Poway to Oceanside, believe the bill could break down barriers to more online learning in ordinary schools.

Instead of having to stay in class for most of the day before sneaking in a few classes online, kids could freely mix classes online with traditional classes at school. Fans dub it “blended learning.”

Even iHigh has found that it needs to mix the two. Teens do real experiments in science labs and act out plays as part of a theater class. They stop at its Old Town offices for help. Just like any high school, iHigh even had to grapple with teen gabbiness when kids came in, sat side-by-side — and chatted online.

“We initially thought we’d be a totally online school,” said Dan Wolfson, who oversees online learning in San Diego Unified. “But most students want that human touch. This hybrid model helps us do that.”

Some state officials have been wary of loosening the link between kids sitting in class and schools getting paid. Unless schools can guarantee that kids are attending, an Assembly analysis said, many online classes “would fail to meet the strict rules of attendance accounting that are designed to protect against the misuse or misallocation of public funds.”

An earlier, similar bill to fund schools for online classes stalled last year, despite being backed by the California Teachers Association, Los Angeles Unified and the San Diego County Office of Education. The state Department of Finance opposed it, saying schools could claim “questionable” funding. Earlier worries about spending at digital charter schools led state legislators to clamp down on their funding.

“It still comes down to a clash of culture between people that are focused on educating kids and the need by the state to protect the public purse,” said Bill Lucia, CEO of the nonprofit EdVoice.

Letting schools reap money for online classes could also cost the state. State analysts estimated that if high schools could claim credit for online schooling and get even a 1 percent bump in attendance, California would have to pay another $10 million to schools — another expense in a budget crunch.

“We want to be as open-minded as possible,” said state Sen. Christine Kehoe, a Democrat who represents much of San Diego. “But we’re extremely mindful of the cost.”

If online classes were counted, schools would have to prove they were legit. Teachers would have to make sure their students were really the ones behind the keyboards: The proposed law says they could give exams in person, meet twice monthly with their pupils or set up a webcam. And schools would have to vouch for the time students spent — though it is unclear exactly how they’d do it.

“We can’t run fly-by-night Mickey Mouse schools without accountability,” said iHigh Principal Patty MacIntyre. But she thinks it could be easier. “How do we get the accountability without all the paperwork?”

Please contact Emily Alpert directly at emily.alpert@voiceofsandiego.org or 619.550.5665 and follow her on Twitter: twitter.com/emilyschoolsyou.

Emily Alpert

Emily Alpert was formerly the education reporter for Voice of San Diego.

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