Course choice programs and policies, which allow students to choose one or more online courses from a provider other than the student’s district of enrollment and have their funding flow to the provider, are a critical and emerging area of focus in digital learning. (Some course choice programs, such as the one in Louisiana, are not limited to online courses, but most are.) The topic has received considerable attention from iNACOL, Digital Learning Now, and other organizations, which usually use the term “course access.” For example, in October 2014 iNACOL released Course Access: Equitable Opportunities for College and Career Ready Students, and Digital Learning Now also has reported extensively on the topic. Here and in a subsequent couple of posts we provide Keeping Pace findings on course choice, including a state-by-state summary.
Course choice fills a critical need for students who do not have access to a wide range of courses—or access to a specific course they are seeking—within their school. Many schools lack advanced courses in math and science, challenging electives, and world language courses. According to the U.S. Department of Education, only 50% of high schools offer calculus, 63% offer physics, and 81% offer Algebra II. The situation is worse for minority students, as only 74% of high schools with “the highest percentage of black / Latino students enrollment offer Algebra II.”
Online courses can fill the gaps for these students who are attending schools without a wide range of available courses. In addition, some students prefer to take a course online in order to create flexibility in their schedules, perhaps to meet the time demands of a job, sport, or other extracurricular activity.
Supplemental online courses have filled this need, and in the early days of online learning more than two dozen states created state virtual schools to provide online courses to students in their states. In most cases, state virtual schools are funded based on state appropriations, often augmented by course fees that the state virtual school charges to the student or the student’s enrolling school district.
Two issues exist with this funding approach that has been used for state virtual schools:
- If the state virtual school is going to meet all student demand for online courses without charging fees, the state appropriation will become very large over time. In those cases state legislators may feel that they are funding students twice—because many students generate a full amount of funding from the state via their district of enrollment, and then in addition take an online course that the state is subsidizing—entirely or in part—via an appropriation to the state virtual school.
- If the state virtual school is going to meet demand by charging fees, it either falls to the district or the student to pay. If the district pays, then the district usually retains the choice of whether or not to allow the student to take the online course. If the student must pay, then the online course is no longer publicly funded.
Course choice policies and programs address these shortcomings by allowing students to choose an online course, and have some portion of their funding be used to pay the online course provider. The key elements of course choice are the following:
- The student chooses online courses from one or more providers.
- The student retains control over the choice. In much the same way that open enrollment laws allow students to choose schools other than those in their district of residence, course choice allows students to choose a single academically appropriate course from outside their district of enrollment.
- A significant portion of the student’s public education funding flows to the provider of the online course.
Eleven states have some sort of course choice in place as of SY 2014–15, but the states vary in significant ways. Key characteristics of specific course choice policies and programs that vary by state include:
- Whether students choose courses through a statewide source such as a common online course catalog and registration system, or alternatively have to go through their district of enrollment.
- The reasons that a district can deny a student’s choice, ranging from situations where the district has many options for denying the student’s choice, to those where few reasons for denial are permitted.
- The recourse that a student has if the district denies the online course, such as appealing to a state organization.
- Whether students can choose from a single provider or from multiple providers.
- The ways in which course providers are vetted by the state prior to offering courses.
- How the cost of the course is determined, and in particular whether the state sets a cost per course, or the cost is set by the provider (usually capped at the pro-rated amount of the student’s funding).
- The funding process, including whether funding is completion-based.
- The tracking and reporting that the state does of providers, online course enrollments, and outcomes.
The next post will compare and contrast course choice programs and policies, and describe several state efforts in this area.