Utah’s state senate missed a first opportunity Tuesday to kick start the transformation of its education system to a student-centric one and leapfrog the rest of the nation when it failed to pass Senate Bill 65 (SB65), also known as the Statewide Online Education Program.

Thankfully the Senate is likely to resuscitate the bill this legislative session and get another swing at it, as the bill does some critical things for Utah’s education system, including allow any Utah student anywhere in the state to have access to the best online courses and teachers and push the online providers to compete on quality by withholding a large chunk of payment until a student successfully completes the course.

Right now the high school online course providers in Utah, as in much of the rest of the nation, get paid no matter how well students do in a given course. This of course means there are almost no incentives to serve students better with high-quality options. Although this is not all that different from how the current mainstream education system functions, online learning represents the potential beginning transformation of that factory-model, monolithic system that doesn’t serve our students well. If Utah’s legislature doesn’t end up passing this bill, it will punt on that opportunity.

A primary reason the 10 detractors voted against the bill (note that of those who voted, a majority did vote for the bill but there were several members absent), according to this article and this one, was that the fiscal impact would be too high. The fiscal note, however, is flawed. Among other flaws in its calculations, it ignores that this funding would accelerate many students’ educations and eliminate significant remedial costs, for which Utah’s taxpayers currently pay.

For those worried that in tough budget times this bill would have taken funds away from district high schools, they are viewing this from the wrong perspective. Right now school districts all around Utah and the country are forced to make cuts because of shrinking budgets. Thanks to this bill, despite the cuts, any school in any part of Utah could have offered its students a full slate of courses—all 34 Advanced Placement courses and multiple foreign languages, for example—next year from day one. And many districts in Utah stood to receive funds from this bill, as they themselves offer online courses.

The bill would also eliminate the double funding of Utah Electronic High School’s online courses that exists today–an appropriation that, in the absence of this bill, might only grow over time as the need for online learning grows and that revolves around metrics that do not incentivize quality.

Even if one assumes that the start-up costs the fiscal note presents are accurate—and there are many reasons to doubt it—one simple fix would be to ask a foundation to front those costs to move the provision to sustainable footing, just as the Gates, Lumina, and Lilly Endowment foundations did in Indiana when they helped start WGU Indiana, a classic disruptive innovation in higher education, which allows the state to dole out no additional subsidies.

In the next couple of days, hopefully Utah’s legislators will see the bigger picture and the potential to create a whole host of quality options for students anywhere from providers who will be literally invested in the success of the students they serve and pass SB65.


  • Michael B. Horn
    Michael B. Horn

    Michael B. Horn is Co-Founder, Distinguished Fellow, and Chairman at the Christensen Institute.