S.C. Teacher Certification Extends to Those Online

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The South Carolina education department is beginning to apply the state's certification regulations to teachers of online courses, raising questions about future course offerings for school districts that rely on outside providers.

School districts contract with providers that are approved by the state for online content and teachers, said Edi Cox, director of online learning for Horry County Schools. Since those courses can originate from a variety of sites, many of the teachers are certified in states other than South Carolina, but the education department told districts about a month ago that all online teachers must have S.C. certification.

The regulation always has been on the books, but the growth in online learning is one reason the state is taking a closer look at accountability, which is a good thing, Cox said.

The state's certification process, however, can be complicated, and it's not free—a $105 nonrefundable processing fee, $54.25 for fingerprinting to start. For online teachers, who in many cases may have only a fraction of S.C. students in their class, applying for the state's certification may not be worth the trouble.

Online education continues to have tremendous growth, with about 1,816,400 enrollments in K-12 school districts in 2009-10, compared with 40,000 to 50,000 enrollments a decade ago, according to the International Association for K-12 Online Learning (INACOL), a nonprofit education association in Washington, D.C.

The top reasons districts offer online learning is to provide courses not otherwise available at their schools and to provide opportunities for credit recovery, INACOL said. HCS offers a variety of programs for online courses, including honors and Advanced Placement classes for grades nine through 12.

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"A big move in the online learning world is that a lot of states recognize this issue," Cox said. "[The state] is supposed to be working on a way to make it easier for providers who may not have S.C. certified teachers. ... Everything needs to be seamless for out-of-state providers and for smaller districts to be able to work that system."

Jay Ragley, education department spokesman, said in an email that while the state approves the list of online content providers, it only reviews the alignment of online courses and state academic standards, not the certification of the teachers those providers employ. He said no proposal has been finalized to address this issue, but the department's Division of School Effectiveness is in the early stages of researching policies enacted in other states and will be seeking input from school districts.

Until now, the district's few contracted enrollments were handled much like student credits are transferred from state to state, Cox said, rather than denying a student a course opportunity. She said districts do their homework when seeking providers, and that HCS uses an extensive vetting process.

"The aim has always been to provide the best teacher for everyone," Cox said.

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