State Board considering new statewide system to facilitate distance learning

The State Board of Education is discussing buying a statewide learning management system in the event that distance learning continues into the fall.

The State Board took no action on the matter during a special meeting Monday, and the contracting and purchasing process could take weeks or months.

“If we know that there could be another round of this pandemic or school closures in the fall, this is the time to address this so that districts have the opportunity to have seamless distance learning, whatever that looks like,” Superintendent of Public Instruction Sherri Ybarra said.

Although the State Board has approved criteria that local schools would need to meet to reopen later this academic year, this represents a clear indication the board is at least considering the possibility schools could be closed or otherwise affected by the coronavirus pandemic in the fall.

Ybarra and several board members said a statewide system could help improve the uniformity with which Idaho provides online learning. As things stand now, Idaho students face varied distance-learning experiences, ranging from packets of assignments sent home to full online learning programs and all points in between.

Ybarra said school chiefs in other states said a statewide learning management system allows them to communicate and virtually share resources, lessons and information efficiently with parents and students.

“Most states are ahead of us in this regard,” Ybarra said.

While districts across the state already have their own instructional management systems, they are not all created equal and don’t all include student learning components to push out content and curriculum to students, Ybarra said. Additionally, the individual systems aren’t all linked.

“We’re not providing the uniform and thorough education, I think, that is required for all students, where some have that opportunity and some do not,” said Ybarra, referencing requirements from the Idaho Constitution.

It’s tough to say how much a statewide system would cost, but there would be implementation, consultants, training and ongoing support costs beyond the rough $1.2 million estimate to provide licenses for all K-12 students. Ensuring all students are connected and have supported devices will be important as well, Ybarra said.

State Board members said they are considering using some of Idaho’s share of federal stimulus money to launch the system, but the bidding and contracting process has yet to begin.

In the recent past, Idaho has struggled with statewide contracts and learning management systems. Several board members were quick to point out policymakers must heed the lessons learned from the Schoolnet debacle. In 2015, the State Department of Education pulled the plug on Schoolnet after the state dumped more than $61 million into an instructional management system that failed to provide timely and useful information to classroom teachers.

Ybarra, who inherited Schoolnet from her predecessor Tom Luna, said the system failed in part because connectivity and device issues weren’t addressed. State Board President Debbie Critchfield said funding was an issue after 2012, when voters repealed Luna’s Students Come First laws.

The State Board is likely to continue the discussion over the next few weeks as staff reaches out to administrators and technology directors to determine local needs and capacity.

Lawsuit update

Like an awkward Thanksgiving dinner with the extended family, the State Board of Education did not address the elephant in the room.

Monday’s meeting was the first since Ybarra filed a lawsuit against the State Board and the Legislature. Ybarra announced the lawsuit Friday as part of her move to block the transfer of 18 full time employees and $2.7 million away from the State Department of Education.

Legislators set the transfer in motion when they set the budget for Ybarra’s office earlier this year and took the funding and personnel away from Ybarra and gave it to the State Board.

Ybarra included the State Board in the suit because it voted down a memorandum of understanding that Ybarra brought forward last week attempting to block the transfer.

At the time State Board members said they were in an awkward spot, but did not believe they could ignore budget bills that Gov. Brad Little signed into law.

“I don’t believe we’ve ever been in a position, or ever will be in a position, to pick and choose what appropriations bills we’re going to support, Board member Linda Clark said before the lawsuit was filed. “There is no precedent for that.”

In the suit itself, Ybarra comes out fighting. She accused the Legislature and her fellow State Board members of “distinct constitutional violations requiring remedies of an urgent nature on an issue of great public importance.”

Ybarra also claimed “the true purpose of this legislation was to significantly hamper and impair the superintendent’s function as an alternative to the legislative adoption of a measure to amend the Idaho Constitution to eliminate the constitutional office of the superintendent” in retaliation for Ybarra not supporting a new school funding formula in 2019.

Although Ybarra and her attorney, recently appointed Special Deputy Idaho Attorney General David Leroy, used strong language and claims in the suit, there did not appear to be any immediate sign of bad blood or retribution. Board members did not address the suit at all during Monday’s meeting.

The transfer is set to take place July 1, and Ybarra has requested an expedited hearing before the Idaho Supreme Court.

The State Board has declined to comment on the matter, citing policy that it does not comment on pending litigation.


Clark Corbin

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