Course choice programs and policies (part 2)

The last post described course choice and why course choice programs and policies have been created in some states. In this post we explore the two categories of states that are implementing some type of course choice. States that allow course choice fall into two groups: those that have state-level, state-supported course choice programs that actively encourage and assist students in selecting courses, and those that allow course choice as a policy, but don’t have a formal state program to facilitate and/or expand course choice. For simplicity, we refer to these states as either having a course choice program OR a course choice policy, even though states with programs must also have some associated policy. States with a course choice program typically have state education agency staff—or a separate organization that may be outside the education agency—running aspects of the program, including informing students of course options, reviewing and approving providers, and tracking and reporting results. In addition, in most cases a funding mechanism specific to course choice, often including some percentage of completion-based funding, has been implemented.

This distinction is important, because it is likely that the states with course choice programs will see more growth in the number of students taking advantage of course choice than states that have policy in place, but no program. States with course choice programs are actively promoting these programs via some combination of course catalog websites, formal reporting of course choice providers and/or outcomes, and other measures. States with course choice policy allow students to enroll in single online courses, but aren’t taking measures to promote or facilitate such enrollments.

Seven states have course choice programs:

  • Florida is unique in that all schools in the state must make at least one, and usually three, part-time and full-time online providers available to all K–12 students, and students’ right to choose one or more courses from Florida Virtual School (FLVS) is in statute. In SY 2013–14 FLVS, FLVS district-run franchises, district programs, and consortia served slightly more than 410,000 supplemental course enrollments. Although this is by far the largest number of supplemental online enrollments in any state in the country, it is the first time in the state’s history that the total dropped from one year to the next (by 4%). Students may choose courses through an online course catalog maintained by the department of education that includes a wide variety of providers. In SY 2014–15, the catalog is expanding to include course performance and completion rates, and a way for students and parents to provide course feedback. Funding is based on completions; each provider receives a prorated portion of the student’s FTE ($5,230 in SY 2014–15) based on the number of courses completed.
  • Utah: The Statewide Online Education Program (SOEP) is among the first and best-known course choice programs in the country. The program is quite small (though growing), serving 3,208 course enrollments (or 6,416 quarter credits) in SY 2013–14, an increase of 151% from the previous year. During SY 2014–15 students in grades 9–12 may enroll in up to four credits online per year; students can advance based on competency. SOEP opened to private and homeschooled students in SY 2014–15, and as of August 2014 these made up 50% of student enrollments. The state maintains a list of 14 approved district and charter providers; any LEA—charter or district—can apply to be an online provider, or can contract with private providers. Providers receive 50% of course fees after the withdrawal period, and 50% when the credit is earned on time; they may also receive a reduced final payment if the student eventually completes the course. There are different funding levels for core and elective courses ranging from $200–$350.
  • Louisiana’s current program, the Supplemental Course Academy (SCA), evolved from its state virtual school (the Louisiana Virtual School, which closed at the end of SY 2012–13) and then from the Course Choice program that served 2,479 course enrollments in SY 2013–14. Ongoing legal challenges to the program’s original funding model were raised, and the Louisiana Supreme Court found in mid-2013 that the Course Choice funding model was unconstitutional; as an interim measure, the department of education reallocated about $2 million in alternative funding for the SY 2013–14 pilot. Funding is now through the Minimum Foundation Program, provided as an incremental funding stream of $26 per student in grades 7–12 (about $7.5 million in SY 2014–15), in addition to the regular public education funding formula. Providers receive 50% of course fees upon enrollment and 50% upon completion, or 40% upon eventual completion. Students select their own online, hybrid, and face-to-face course offerings from 44 authorized providers, including commercial vendors, Louisiana community colleges, and school districts. All course registrations require local school counselor approval.
  • Michigan: Students in grades 6–12 can take two funded online courses without resident district approval as of January 2014. Students choose from Michigan Virtual School (the state virtual school) or a statewide course catalog that includes district and intermediate school district courses. The legislation outlines five reasons districts can deny student enrollment requests. Online providers set the price for an individual course, however, districts do not have to pay more than 1/12 of the district’s foundation allowance per pupil funding for a semester-length course ($593), or 1/18 of the district’s foundation allowance for a trimester course ($393 max). Providers receive 80% of course fees upon enrollment and 20% upon completion.
  • Oklahoma: In June 2012, state board of education rule created the Oklahoma Supplemental Online Course Program (OSOCP) to establish a framework for school districts to offer supplemental online courses to students in grades K–12. That rule allows students to take up to five hours of supplemental online instruction at no cost to the student; funding is prorated to the prior year’s per pupil expenditure. Each school district is responsible for paying each course provider, “based upon continued course enrollment and subsequent course completion.” The state maintains a list of approved providers. Courses must be “educationally appropriate,” defined as any instruction that is not substantially a repeat of a course or portion of a course that the student has successfully completed, regardless of the grade of the student, and regardless of whether a course is similar to any currently offered in the school district.
  • Texas: All course choice activity in the state is through the Texas Virtual School Network (TxVSN), which acts as a statewide course catalog that includes districts, open-enrollment charter schools, private entities, and nonprofits. Students may take up to three year-long courses each year at no cost to the student. Districts and open-enrollment charter schools may deny a student’s enrollment request if the district or school offers a substantially similar course, and they have discretion to select the course provider for the course a student requests. Funding is based on completion; pricing cannot be determined by the state, only by the districts and open-enrollment charter schools involved.
  • Wisconsin: The Course Options program is being implemented as of SY 2014–15. Students may take up to two courses at a time from providers that include charter schools, higher education institutions, and approved nonprofit organizations. Districts may reject enrollment requests if the course does not meet the student’s academic plan or satisfy a high school graduation requirement. The resident district pays the cost of online course, or 1/7 of a full-time open enrollment amount, whichever is less. The full-time open enrollment amount for SY 2014–15 is about $948 for a one credit course or $474 for a one-half credit course. The course provider, referred to as the “Educational Institution,” is prohibited from charging a pupil or resident district any additional fees.

One of the key differences between states with policies and programs is that states that are promoting course choice programs typically require local districts to notify all students and families of course choice options. In Utah, the issue of student notification became a concern when the first two years of course choice resulted in low enrollment numbers, and state leaders were concerned that districts weren’t informing students about their option to take online courses. This is also the case in Florida, where there has been concern that due to funding changes districts were discouraging students from taking FLVS courses because when students take any out-of-district course, it results in reduced funding for the local district. In order to figure out whether districts were informing families of their course choice options, the DOE surveyed districts regarding their choice options for students and whether or not they educate students and families about those options; it released a report in April 2014 finding that districts are making options available to students as required by law. However, it also found evidence that a small number of district policies or practices are restricting or hindering student choice.

Our next post will look at states that have course choice policies (but not programs) in place.