New Laws, Programs Expand E-Learning Options

Lawmakers in Utah recently mandated that school districts allow high school students to take online courses from state-approved providers. In Florida, large districts must give students online-course options from at least three different providers. Recent legislation in Georgia altered the funding structure for students who take virtual courses; the action provides an incentive for districts to encourage students to try online classes.

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In recent years, several states have enacted laws that require more choices for students who want to try taking courses online, outside the offerings of brick-and-mortar school districts. In some cases, such legislation—as in Florida—is a companion to requirements that students take at least one online course before graduating from high school.

The new reality of such requirements, however, means that districts are often facing a significant change in the way they provide options to students. In some places, the legislation has even introduced a level of competition among providers—which sometimes are the districts themselves—in an effort to boost the quality of offerings. At times, the measures have spawned new methods of cooperation and collaboration.

“States are starting to recognize there are a variety of ways that online courses can be provided, and there’s a desire to make sure students can access those,” said Matthew Wicks, the chief operating officer for the International Association for K-12 Online Learning, or iNACOL, in Vienna, Va. “There’s now a very strong motivation to provide choice options, which is certainly very different from the dominant way things are currently set up.”

Utah state lawmakers adopted legislation in 2011 mandating that high school students be permitted to take individual online courses from any local education agency in the state, said Sean Thomas, an audit and finance specialist for the state office of education. But it’s up to students and their parents to seek out the options and request a course.

“This bill really put the control in the hands of the parents and the students to go to their district or charter school and say, ‘I want to take courses in this online program,’ ” Mr. Thomas said.

The state pays a fee, which varies based on the type of course, to the provider; the average one-credit course is $549, said Cory Kanth, a statewide online education program specialist for the Utah education department. The fee spurred many districts to seek out ways to keep their students in-house, Ms. Kanth said, and since the law’s enactment, some districts have formed consortia in an effort to attract students seeking online courses.

“A really positive outcome of this law is that, as a result, districts are developing their own programs, giving students a lot more options,” she said.

That’s what happened in the 66,000-student Davis school district in Farmington, Utah. The district formed a coalition with seven other districts to provide online education to students, said Sue Winkler, the district’s online schools administrator, who also oversees the Utah Students Connect consortium.

“When the law came through, there was a group [of districts] that got together to figure out how to use what we already had,” she said. “We realized we already had great teachers and great curricula here.”

Through the consortium, each district contributes teachers, time, and curricula, and no money changes hands for services. The contributions are based on a percentage of students from each district using the consortium’s resources. The consortium has only been around for one school year, but so far has worked well, according to Ms. Winkler, who pointed out that it has had an added benefit: the collaboration with educators from other districts.

During the 2011-12 school year, 1,300 students took courses through the consortium. Only eight students went outside the consortium to seek out other online-course providers. “So really, [the consortium] is doing what was intended,” Ms. Winkler said.

Florida’s Growing Options

Florida in the past few years has passed numerous laws boosting online learning, including a requirement that students take at least one online course before graduation; over time, state lawmakers have made it easier to do just that.

In addition to opening the door for the state’s largest virtual school, the Florida Virtual School, to provide online courses to students in elementary through high school, the state has forbidden districts to deny a student access to a FLVS class—even if the district offers the same one—and a district may not limit the number of classes a student can take through FLVS.

But students’ choices aren’t restricted to FLVS, the largest state-sponsored virtual school in the country, which had nearly 260,000 half-credit enrollments during the 2011-12 school year. Florida’s larger districts must give students at least three options for providers of online courses, said Patricia Levesque, the executive director of the Foundation for Excellence in Education, a Tallahassee-based organization founded by former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush.

One of those options is often the districts themselves, FLVS, or one of a handful of other providers approved by the state, said Sally Roberts, an educational policy consultant for the Florida education department. The goal was to give students more online educational options, but the enactment of the requirements in 2011 didn’t prompt a huge surge in online enrollments, Ms. Roberts said. “It wasn’t like the top blew off a volcano,” she said, though online enrollments have continued to rise.
At first, Ms. Roberts said, districts were concerned about meeting the requirements. However, “as districts gain experience, they’ve embraced this,” she said.

Melissa Carr, the coordinator of online learning for the 60,000-student Volusia County, Fla. schools, said that in the past her district did offer limited online options, which have expanded since the passage of the new online-choice laws. The district has contracted with the online-course provider Compass Learning, based in Austin, Texas, to build the district’s own courses for a future option, but currently offers online courses through FLVS, for-profit course provider K-12 Inc., and the Pasco eSchool, a virtual school operated by the 67,000-student Pasco County district, based in Land O’Lakes, Fla.

The Volusia County district is also trying to satisfy students who want some online learning by creating a new pilot program for high school focused on blended learning, which mixes online learning and face-to-face instruction. In the 2012-13 school year, the district will be trying to extend the reach of outstanding teachers through technology in an effort have them work with a greater number of students, Ms. Carr said.

The law “has given us a little catalyst to have perhaps some more freedom and some more ambitious goals,” she said.

Recruiting Virtual Students

Online-choice legislation may have another consequence as well, one that is just starting to percolate in Florida districts, said Ms. Levesque of the Foundation for Excellence in Education.

Part of the law says that districts can’t bar their students from seeking out online courses from other districts.

“Kids can take virtual courses across district lines,” Ms. Levesque said. “Some districts are just starting to understand they can now recruit students to their district by offering innovative courses online.”

Adam Emerson, a school choice analyst for the Washington-based Thomas B. Fordham Institute, said online-choice legislation over the past few years has had a direct impact on offerings for students, particularly in Florida.

“We’ve seen a lot more efforts to customize education and to think of virtual school as less of a unitary thing, or just one option,” he said. “You’re seeing a greater menu of options opening up for students in Florida to get an online education.”

But, of course, in most cases, wherever the student goes, the money follows. So in Georgia, when lawmakers wanted the option of online courses to be seen as positive—and not a penalty—for school districts, they passed new legislation. The law, which takes effect for the 2012-13 school year, means districts lose significantly less money when students take courses through virtual schools.

Typically, districts are paid between $360 and $800 per student, per course, said Bob Swiggum, the chief information officer for the Georgia education department, but the Georgia Virtual School needs only about $250 to teach each course. The new legislation allows districts to keep the difference when a student takes an online class, Mr. Swiggum said.

The state-run Georgia Virtual School is not designed to be a full-time option, and districts are allowed to deny a student access to a virtual course if the district offers a competing class.

“It was a way to make the state virtual school more attractive,” Mr. Swiggum said. “The hope is that more people will utilize virtual courses when they’re not available through brick-and-mortar schools.”

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