On Monday most of Arizona’s district and county superintendents met at ASU SkySong for the Southwest Digital Leadership Summit, put on by the Center for the Future of Arizona and Intel. I was particularly impressed by the several Arizona legislators who attended the event from start to finish and voiced strong support for the idea that Arizona should leverage technology to bring self-paced, individualized, student-centric learning to its youth. These included Senator Rich Crandall, Rep. Chester Crandell, Rep. Doris Goodale, Senator Nancy Barto, and Rep. Cecil Ash. State Superintendent Huppenthal, state board of education members, and local and county school board members attended as well.

Senator Rich Crandall, chair of Arizona’s senate education committee, was the most outspoken champion. His vision was contagious, and his leadership will continue to be a tremendous asset to Arizona as the state moves forward. His sponsorship of the “Move on When Ready” legislation, which allows students to graduate from high school early upon demonstrating competency, is particularly notable.

During his opening remarks, Senator Crandall said that 90 percent of the power that local superintendents need to transform their classrooms is already in their hands. They do not need to wait for policy change, because they are already empowered.

Senator Crandall is right. Superintendents do have the power to start offering online opportunities to their students, particularly in areas of nonconsumption. They also already have the power to apply for waivers to excuse them from policies that thwart their efforts. Even more, Tina Barseghian makes the point here that the system will change whether or not government on any level or the entrenched public education system mandates the change.

But this does not excuse the legislature from its critical role in optimizing the regulatory context for innovation. Without policy leadership, Arizona will have a slim to none chance of building a student-centric system on top of its current framework. And districts will struggle, not to mention likely waste millions of dollars, to try to update their schools.

Indeed, there is significant work to do in Arizona’s policy realm. Here are seven priorities that will vault Arizona to first place in regulatory readiness for high-quality digital learning:

  • Ensure reliable, high-speed connectivity for every school in the state. This is an infrastructure problem that counties and districts can’t solve very well on their own, any better than they can start building roads and highways. Connectivity was the number one problem that the superintendents cited this week as inhibiting their access to online opportunities. North Carolina’s Connectivity Initiative offers a good example of how to galvanize resources on the state level.
  • Establish a clean mechanism for funding to follow students down to the course level. The state already has in place the Arizona Online Instruction (AOI) program, which provides many part- and full-time options for K-12 students through state-approved, district programs. The state has rules to govern how to divide ADA funds between online-course providers (either an AOI district or content providers that contract with an AOI district) and the district where a student attends traditional school. But according to one online-course provider, the funding model is “incomprehensible at best.” Arizona needs a clean, open system for districts and online-content providers to get paid for each online course they deliver.
  • Make those payments subject to successful student performance. Pay for a portion of the course when a student actually completes the course, or even better, when the student hits a target of pre- versus post-course growth. Some think the optimal formula is to pay 90% upfront, 10% upon successful performance. Others think it should be 50-50. Either way, incentivize course providers to get the job done.
  • Ensure that students have access. Right now, if they want to complete AOI courses, students have to ask for permission from their districts. To protect their per-student funding, districts can refuse to pay. Follow the lead of Utah with SB65 and provide guaranteed funding for students to swap a traditional course with an online one.
  • Repeal Statute 15-808-E, which requires that each school participating in AOI keep a daily log to track the amount of time students spend learning. The daily log serves as the basis for calculating average daily attendance, which in turn determines funding. This onerous record keeping is not necessary if the state moves to a performance-based model to fund online courses.
  • Set up autonomous innovation zones where new schools are free from the weight of traditional priorities, processes, and values. Appoint capable leaders with a demonstrated entrepreneurial track record to launch new schools in these zones. Free up the innovators to experiment with hiring, organization design, schedules, facility design, and other hallmarks of the traditional education system.  Define success, but differently, and then hold the entrepreneurs to it (along with other sensible ground rules.) The power to innovate on this scale most logically comes at the state level. For more on setting up autonomous zones, see The Innovator’s Solution.
  • Help traditional schools pursue sustaining innovations. Technology does not need to transform the classroom to be tremendously worthwhile, both in terms of saving money and improving outcomes. Project RED provides thoughtful research about how to deploy 1-to-1 computers. Many of the models in The Rise of K-12 Blended Learning report promise significant financial and academic improvements. The state can exercise leadership by helping local leaders understand how to deploy the right models within the traditional system.

Arizona is on its way to unleashing the power of online learning for its students. With the continued commitment from and hard work of the legislators, an improved regulatory context for innovation will give the state an unstoppable advantage.



  • Heather Staker
    Heather Staker

    Heather Staker is an adjunct fellow at the Christensen Institute, specializing in K–12 student-centered teaching and blended learning. She is the co-author of "Blended" and "The Blended Workbook." She is the founder and president of Ready to Blend, and has authored six BloomBoard micro-credentials for the “Foundations of Blended Learning” educator micro-endorsement.