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The signature issue for Betsy DeVos, nominated to be the next U.S. Secretary of Education, is giving parents freedom of choice, either to choose charter schools or to use vouchers to buy an education at any school they like, public or private.  The logical extension of such policies – permitting students to take individual courses wherever they wish, by using online options – has already begun to take root in about a dozen states.

It’s called “Course Access” or “Course Choice.” Under such plans, the funding for a course taken by an individual student goes to the school or online company offering the course, often away from the student’s local district. In Nevada, in fact, parents can spend state education dollars any way they please — on private, public, online, part-time and full-time schools, on tutoring and extra books — through education savings accounts, which an advocate for them calls “the purest form of educational freedom.”

As they have emerged in some states, these programs have been assisted by conservative groups such as Jeb Bush’s Chiefs for Change and the Koch Industries-backed American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC). It remains to be seen whether a Trump Administration will boost them further, using federal policy.

The growth of “Course Choice” initiatives in various states was chronicled in depth by The Hechinger Report last year, in this story from our archives.

— The editors

Chatfield High School in Minnesota doesn’t offer sociology (or German, or criminology, for that matter), but when senior Keagan Clarke, 18, finished a fall semester class in psychology, his teacher suggested he try sociology.

Thanks to a relatively new state policy, all spring Clarke went to the school library during second period for an online sociology class.

“It was very cool,” said Clarke, noting it lived up to his psychology teacher’s description: “It was a very interesting topic with some things that will tie back to psychology.”

This initiative, often called “Course Choice” or “Course Access,” is, as one proponent described it, like “school choice on steroids.”

Proponents count at least 10 states that have adopted a collection of policies they began promoting as Course Access — policies that allow students to take classes part-time online (and sometimes in other off-campus classrooms) by choosing from a variety of providers, including charter schools and other districts, instead of being limited to their local course offerings or to one state virtual school. And the Course Access movement is gaining momentum as it expands across the country, with eight states adopting or considering such laws in just the last four years, according to a comprehensive report on Course Access sponsored by the conservative group the Foundation for Excellence in Education and the lobbying firm EducationCounsel.

For Clarke and other students, online schools mean options, but for school district officials, they can mean less revenue, as education dollars flow toward charter schools or other districts that offer the online courses.

At least 10 states now permit students to take classes part-time online (and sometimes in other in-person classrooms), instead of being limited to their local course offerings; eight adopted or considered laws in just the last four years.

And, not unlike what often happens with charter schools and vouchers, the Course Access policies can set up a competition for limited education dollars.

States generally allocate money per student to districts, but in states with Course Access, districts have to share that funding based on the number of courses a student takes elsewhere. Much of the money can end up in the hands of for-profit companies that supply the curriculum, directly provide the classes or run the online schools in which students enroll part time.

“What is possible is the exploding wiring — if you will — of money across district lines or even state lines,” said Patricia Burch, associate professor of education and policy at the University of Southern California. “That can have a very immediate funding implication for a district.”

“It is a significant cost,” said Randy Paulson, Chatfield High’s principal. His school, with 400 students, can manage it partly because no more than 40 students a year are taking an online class. In Chatfield’s case, nearly all the classes are provided by the Minnesota Virtual Academy, run by the Houston Public School District about 40 miles away, with help from the for-profit company K12 Inc.

“What we want to do is serve our own students the best we can,” said Paulson, noting that adding an online class or two sometimes helps keep students in school. “We don’t want to lose students. If we lose students, we’re not able to provide students those opportunities.”

Similar to efforts to open charter schools or offer vouchers for private schools, Course Access aims to allow students (usually in high school) and their families to make choices — in this case, about where to go for individual classes. Advocates believe that the programs have the potential to appeal to all students, even those who would never consider leaving their local schools or don’t have the option of a charter school.

“We think the market is infinite,” said Mary Gifford, senior vice president of education policy and academic affairs at K12 Inc., the nation’s largest virtual school operator, which provides the curriculum and some management for the school where Clarke and his classmates enrolled. She said that although no more than 1 or 2 percent of U.S. students will ever enroll in virtual schools full-time, the company is now working closely with districts to help them start online programs as part of Course Access policies.

So far, only a tiny fraction of eligible students have enrolled for online classes. For example, in Minnesota, which began allowing part-time online enrollment in 2006, roughly 1 percent (5,520) of the state’s secondary school students enrolled during the 2013-14 school year, according to the Minnesota Department of Education.

But the policy has powerful backers, including at least three Republican presidential candidates — former Florida Governor Jeb Bush, Louisiana Governor Bobby Jindal and Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker — along with conservative groups such as the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC, the Koch Industries-backed association of state legislators and businesses), not to mention allies in the for-profit education business.

“If you rewind and go back to the last election cycle, you had at least two governors campaigning on Course Access,” said John Bailey, vice president of policy at the Jeb Bush-founded Foundation for Excellence in Education, referring to governors Bruce Rauner of Illinois and Greg Abbott of Texas.

“When a policy reaches that high a profile,” Bailey added, “you’re making some progress.”

”I think Course Choice is sort of evolving, just as a policy area, into what you may know as an educational savings account. We’re evolving as a country, and I think students continue to need to be competitive, not only within the United States, but globally as we continue to slip.”

And the reform-minded group Chiefs for Change, also founded by Jeb Bush, is pushing to include a provision in the update to the federal No Child Left Behind Act to set aside 5 percent of Title I dollars to be used, among other things, for Course Access. (The House version of the bill already sets aside 3 percent, or roughly $410 million, mostly for outside tutoring services; changes could be made when the House and Senate versions are reconciled in conference committee.)

Many of these backers prefer the term Course Access to Course Choice, to distinguish it from school choice and the controversies surrounding it, and also as a way of indicating its focus on addressing many schools’ lack of course offerings.

As states around the country try to prepare more students for college and careers, they are working to provide more students with access to advanced classes, particularly in science, technology, engineering and math (STEM). The widespread lack of access to some key courses — only half of all high schools nationwide offer calculus and just 63 percent have physics — has become a rallying cry for Course Access supporters.

“Having a high-quality education must no longer depend on location,” wrote Jeb Bush in the introduction to last year’s Course Access policy brief. “For the next generation of students, the international stakes are too high to restrict access to great courses based on ZIP code.”

Yet at least so far, the program may not be living up to its promise of creating greater access for the very kids who might need it most. The students using the program in Texas are wealthier and whiter overall than the public school population as a whole, suggesting that gaps in access persist online. Data on the Florida Virtual School show a similar trend; in Utah, a stunningly low 6.15 percent of students participating in the state’s Course Access program are officially listed as poor enough to qualify for a fee waiver, though officials said course providers might not be filling out the information correctly.

Utah the model legislation and its aftermath

When Utah passed the law creating a Course Access program in 2011, school districts panicked over what it would do to their budgets.

“We were fearful because those who were pushing it were pretty intense,” said Ken Grover, now the principal of Innovations Early College High School in Salt Lake City, describing billboards that advertised free online courses.

The program — officially called the Statewide Online Education Program — has been phased in over time. High school students this fall will be able to take up to five classes online during the school year while remaining enrolled in their local high school. This past school year, when students could take four classes online, it cost districts up to $366 per student per semester, according to the Utah State Office of Education.

“Most parents want their kids to go to school. They want them at school learning. It’s their identity.”

In the fall of 2016, students will be able to take up to six online classes (usually considered a full load of coursework) while remaining enrolled.

Utah’s Course Access legislation also allows kids in private schools and home-schooled kids to participate through a separate funding stream.

The Utah policy was the model for what conservative backers of the program had imagined. In fact, Utah’s legislation is one of two officially approved by the Koch-backed ALEC. (The other, which contains two possible funding options, is based on a law passed in Louisiana, though later overturned by its state court, and on the law passed in Texas.)

The disaster that public school districts in Utah anticipated never materialized — partly because, within a few months, many districts in the state had established online schools to compete for dollars with the online charter schools.

Canyons School District, for example, went from having no online students in 2011 to 1,900 this past year. They are all enrolled part time, and all but 400 come from within the district, said Darren Draper, who runs what he’s been told is the largest of the district’s part-time schools, the Canyons Virtual High School.

“That’s huge,” said Draper. “If we didn’t build CVHS, we would have many students going elsewhere, without question.”

In fact, just 1,367 students in the entire state took an online class outside their district in 2014-15, according to preliminary state figures, meaning district budgets were largely spared.

In the end, advocates of the change and public school officials who balked at the measure can both claim victory in Utah — at least so far.

Course Access backers, however, claim credit for creating the competition that spurred the public schools to change.

“We changed the landscape in the state entirely,” said Robyn Bagley, board chair for Parents for Choice in Education, a Utah group that advocated for the law locally. “The amount of options skyrocketed in some form or another.”

Bagley maintains that the program has already grown dramatically in its first four years and will expand further.

But Grover said he doesn’t expect to see a spike in numbers. “Most parents want their kids to go to school,” he said. “They want them at school learning. It’s their identity.”

(In perhaps a reflection of where online learning is headed, both Bagley and Grover now run blended-learning schools that they say offer the best of both worlds — the personalization of an online school with the in-person interactions of a traditional school.)

Although rural Texas districts depend on Course Access, statewide its enrollments have dropped

Rural school districts across the state of Texas are using its version of Course Access to offer courses to fulfill basic high school requirements and even to save money.

In the tiny Dell City Independent School District, with fewer than 100 children enrolled in kindergarten through 12th grade, every single middle and high school student was enrolled in an online social studies class after the district’s teacher left mid-year. Algebra II and Spanish classes were also offered virtually, said Veronica Gomez, a physical education teacher who doubles as the liaison to the Texas Virtual Academy Network, as the statewide program is officially called.

“We live in a rural area; it’s out in the middle of nowhere,” she said. “We don’t have the staff. Because we don’t have the staff, we have to go online.” The district hadn’t found a good candidate to teach Spanish, she said, but added that the online program has other advantages: “It’s cheaper for us. We don’t have to pay benefits or anything like that.”

“What we want to do is serve our own students the best we can … We don’t want to lose students.”

Most Texas districts, however, appear to be taking a different route — they are opting to spend money on their own schools and teachers instead of paying for online classes.

When the state originally started up the Texas Virtual School Network Course Catalog, in 2009, students could take courses online without the districts having to cover the costs; the state had allocated a separate pool of money for the program.

But after the state stopped covering the cost, the number of spots filled in the semester-long online classes dropped precipitously, from 22,899 in 2010-11 to 5,757 in 2013-14. The wording of the state law may have been a major factor.

The law says that districts can turn down a student’s request for a state-vetted online class only if their school offers a “substantially similar” class. Backers of Course Access said they think many districts are using a generous interpretation of that concept (they tried unsuccessfully this spring to get the legislature to close that loophole).

Louisiana’s new source of funding for college and career classes

In a striking innovation, Louisiana adopted a program, officially called Course Choice, that includes not just online courses but off-campus classes as well. As the law was originally written in Louisiana, for-profit companies and other outside groups could compete to directly provide the online or in-person classes, with parents and students choosing among them and funding going to the winners.

The political opposition to the program was initially fierce, and the law was challenged successfully. The state Supreme Court ruled that the funding approach was unconstitutional because it didn’t provide local school boards a say. Lawmakers revamped the program, removing the competition for resources, allowing schools to control what classes their students enrolled in and adding additional money — in essence, guaranteeing extra funding for the extra classes.

The revised program has expanded rapidly, according to the Louisiana Department of Education, with 19,068 semester-long Course Choice enrollments in 2014-15, just its second year. While the state has been championed as the model for Course Access policies, state superintendent John White said the program hasn’t lived up to his original vision.

The program was originally conceived as a way to bring new and inspiring classes to high school students preparing for life after graduation, White said, with “things that would not have existed without Course Choice.”

Although a welding program, an elite private college’s associates degree program and an ACT-preparation program have successfully flourished as prime examples of innovation under the revised program, schools across the state are most commonly using the program to prepare high school students for life after graduation, specifically allowing students to earn college credit through the state’s four-year universities, technical and community colleges. More than two-thirds (13,000) of the course enrollments have been in these so-called dual-enrollment classes.

“That’s an important thing,” White said, but added, “much of that would exist — not all of it, but much of it would exist without Course Choice.” (Significant numbers of students already took dual-enrollment classes before Course Choice ever started.) He had also hoped, with the initial bill, to put decision-making control in the hands of parents instead of school boards, and argues that the program now has less innovation as a result.

White, who heads the Chiefs for Change group, said federal funding of Course Access, if changes are made to the No Child Left Behind Act, could drive further innovation, with outside groups essentially guaranteed a chance at significant funds. “You’re going to attract a lot of actors that you wouldn’t otherwise attract — creative actors,” he said.

Despite the wide consensus that the program is now working, critics still aren’t happy about how it was originally conceived in Louisiana. “I think it was an ALEC-driven, an American Legislative Exchange-driven, initiative that Superintendent White felt would work in Louisiana,” said the Louisiana School Boards Association executive director, Scott Richard, who helped launch a lawsuit against the state program as it was initially conceived.

“I think it’s all part of the national reform, so-called reform, from the national think tanks,” he added, arguing that the new form of Course Choice had provided districts with resources to make important changes.

White said his inspiration was the online experience in Louisiana and with charter schools and school choice generally, but acknowledged that, because schools are happier with the revised version of the program, principals and teachers are collaborating with the state on everything from scheduling problems to reaching students who hadn’t had access to courses in the past.

Some proponents of Course Access now say that a program that doesn’t start off as competitive for funding may be best.

“I don’t see one system as better than the other; they’re just very different,” White said.

Other options besides Course Access

Of course, for many advocates of Course Access, the program represents just one possibility for changing the public education system — their goal is to put more power in the hands of students and parents to decide where state education dollars are spent.

Nevada passed a law in June that allows parents to spend state education dollars any way they please — on private, public, online, part-time and full-time schools, on tutoring and extra books — through education savings accounts, or “vouchers on steroids,” as they were called in one news story about the legislation. (Four other states have similar laws, but they limit the savings accounts significantly — to students with special needs, in foster care and/or from high-poverty households.)

“I think Course Choice is sort of evolving, just as a policy area, into what you may know as an educational savings account,” said Lindsay Russell, the director of the ALEC Task Force on Education and Workforce Development. “We’re evolving as a country, and I think students continue to need to be competitive, not only within the United States, but globally as we continue to slip. I think educational savings accounts are the purest form of educational freedom.”

Course Access in its current form, while seemingly less radical than Nevada’s approach, appeals to some of its more conservative backers because it can be set up to pay schools and other course providers only when students complete a course (or potentially pass an outside exam).

Proponents call this a step toward accountability and paying for the right thing — results, instead of student attendance, especially given the dismal completion rates for online classes. (In Louisiana and Utah, providers of courses receive half on enrollment and half when the course is completed, for example.)

“Nevada is the poster child for seeing a different way to approach this,” said Michael Horn, co-founder and executive director of the Clayton Christensen Institute. “We need to step back and start learning what policy environments work in terms of incentivizing the right behavior. Course Access is this intriguing place to play with a lot of policies that move away from seat time toward competency-based learning and measuring individual student growth and things like that.”

This story was produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education. Read more about blended learning.

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