Special Report

States Take Legislative Actions to Expand Virtual Ed.

By Katie Ash — March 12, 2012 8 min read
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Online and blended learning opportunities exist for at least some students in all 50 states and the District of Columbia, according to the 2011 edition of “Keeping Pace With K-12 Online Learning,” a report from the Durango, Colo.-based Evergreen Education Group that annually reviews policies and practices around online learning.

No two states are exactly the same, however, in how they regulate such education. As a result, new legislation each year shifts the online learning landscape for states, putting some ahead of the pack in online opportunities for students, while others provide just a bare-bones set of offerings.

“Where each state is and how they’re running legislation depends on what kind of opportunities they have,” says Susan Patrick, the president and chief executive officer of the International Association for K-12 Online Learning, or iNACOL, based in Vienna, Va. “Every state is on its own journey of enabling these opportunities and running into barriers. They’re trying to open up and fix that balance between opening access and ensuring quality.”

Last year, 16 states passed legislation around online learning, says Patrick.

Education Week has tracked the major legislative and policy changes affecting virtual schools over the past several years. Following are summaries of key trends and the actions states have taken based on research by Education Week, iNACOL, and the Evergreen Education Group.

E-Course Requirements

After months of public hearings, the Idaho state board of education in November 2011 approved an online graduation requirement, along with a sweeping set of other education changes, that makes it the first state to require students to take at least 2 credits online to graduate. Idaho now joins three other states that require an online learning experience for graduation.

Michigan was the first state to pass an online learning graduation requirement, starting with students entering 8th grade in 2006. Students in that state must take an online class during high school to graduate.

Starting with the 9th grade class of 2009-10, students in Alabama must complete one online course to graduate. It can be either a core course or an elective, and students may receive a waiver for the requirement for justifiable reasons. Guidelines on online learning experiences, course standards, and online teachers have been published by the Alabama Department of Education.

In Florida, students entering 9th grade in 2011-12 must complete an online course to graduate. Students may complete the course during grades 6-8 as well.

And in West Virginia, the state board of education recommends that each student complete an online learning experience in high school, but it is not a requirement for graduation.

Competency-Based Credits

One of the oft-cited advantages of online learning, according to advocates, is the flexibility that it provides students to move at their own pace. However, seat-time requirements, which stipulate the amount of time each student must spend in a particular course to earn credit, thwart the potential flexibility that online learning can provide for students to accelerate their learning, virtual learning advocates say. As a result, a handful of states have changed policies to pave the way toward competency- or proficiency-based course completions.

New Hampshire was the first state to abolish seat-time requirements, in 2005. Districts were allowed to award credits based on seat time or mastery of content until 2008, when the seat-time policy was eliminated.

Since 2003, Oregon has allowed districts and schools to implement proficiency-based approaches to awarding credits. In 2009, the policy was expanded to require all coursework to be tied to demonstration of proficiency or mastery of standards.

The Florida Virtual School relies on a performance-based funding model that allows students to gain credits based on mastery rather than seat time. Funding for a course is provided to the school only after the student has successfully completed it, an arrangement that allows for the competency-based model.

In Alabama, students have been allowed since 2008 to progress through courses based on proficiency and mastery of content rather than time spent in the classroom. The change was led by then-Deputy Superintendent of Education Tommy Bice. (Bice is now the state superintendent.) About half the districts in the state make use of that allowance.

The Genesee Intermediate School District in Michigan was granted a seat-time waiver in 2009 for students in online, teacher-led courses. The waiver was extended to more than 50 districts in 2010; and in July 2011, the Michigan Department of Education unveiled a memo called “Streamlined Process for Approving Seat Time Waivers in 2011-12" to help with the process. Arizona also provides seat-time waivers on a case-by-case basis.

In 2009, legislators in Missouri eliminated seat-time requirements for online courses offered by Missouri school districts.

Nevada changed its attendance requirements for distance and online learning programs in August 2010 to provide alternatives for students who do not physically report to a classroom. A measure passed in 2011 revised those provisions for students. At a meeting in June 2011, the New York state board of regents eased seat-time requirements by lessening requirements for face-to-face interactions between teachers and students taking online classes.

In 2011, Utah passed a law that replaces seat-time requirements with competency-based courses for virtual learning.

The same year, the Idaho Department of Education approved a pilot program that will allow certain students in public schools, as well as public charter schools, to earn credit through competency-based courses, free of seat-time requirements.

Charter Enrollment Caps

Louisiana lawmakers lifted a 70-school charter school cap in 2009. Since then, another roughly 40 charter schools have opened in the state, including two online charter schools.

In 2011, legislators in Arkansas removed the cap on the number of open-enrollment charter schools allowed in that state.

Also in 2011, Oregon lawmakers lifted enrollment caps on the number of students allowed in virtual charter schools. The law also allows up to 3 percent of students in a

Wisconsin removed its cap on student enrollments in full-time virtual charter schools in June 2011. The cap, placed in 2008, had set the total of such students at 5,250.

Choosing Courses

Several states have made legislative moves to allow students to choose where each of their classes is taken. For instance, a student could choose to take multiple online courses from different providers in addition to courses in a brick-and-mortar school.

Legislation passed in Florida in 2011 requires medium and large districts to offer at least three different options for education choices for each grade level. Small districts must offer at least one alternative option. Students are allowed to choose from those options on a course-by-course basis. (A district’s size is determined by a sparsity equation provided by the legislature.) Minnesota allows students to choose a single online course from multiple providers.

New Mexico legislators adopted a 2011 law that allows students in failing schools to choose online alternatives to brick-and-mortar classes. Funding for the online option comes from the student’s home district.

The same year, both Oregon and Utahenacted laws that allow students to choose online classes at the course level.

Full-Time Online Schools

In 2009, legislators in Arizona passed a measure that allows any district or charter school in the state to start an online program that serves students in any part of the state. As a result, the number of online options in the state has expanded from 36 in 2010-11 to 65 in 2011-12.

In Florida, beginning in 2009-10, all 74 districts offered a full-time virtual education option for students. Legislation passed in 2011 allows full-time online charter schools to serve students within a district using providers approved by the state education department. Legislation passed the same year in Idaho allows higher education institutions to open virtual charter high schools.

In fall 2011, Louisiana opened its first two statewide full-time online schools: the Louisiana Connections Academy (K-12) and the Louisiana Virtual Charter Academy (K-10).

Legislation passed in 2011 in Maine paves the way for full-time online learning options in that state for the first time by allowing the creation of charter schools, including virtual charters; so far, no charter schools have been approved by the State Charter School Commission.

In 2010, legislators in Massachusetts passed a measure that allows virtual “innovation” schools, with enrollment capped at 500 students per school, but allowing full-time online learning options through those entities for the first time. The Massachusetts Virtual Academy at Greenfield was the first full-time virtual school to open in fall 2010 under that law. Michigan opened its first virtual full-time charter schools in 2010. Those schools are limited to serving 400 students each in their first year of operation and can recruit students from across the state.

In 2011, New Jersey approved two virtual charter schools for a planning year to give those schools time to develop the “academic and operational components of the school,” according to the New Jersey Department of Education. The New Jersey Virtual School and the New Jersey Virtual Academy Charter School are planned for opening in fall 2012, but must first pass a “preparedness review” by the state department of education.

A New Mexico law set in 2008 allows for the creation of full-time, multidistrict online schools, but so far, none has been approved by the state education department.

Legislation passed in 2011 in Ohio ends a moratorium on new virtual schools as of Jan. 1, 2013, but limits the number of new virtual schools each year to five. If more than five wish to open, they will be chosen by a lottery.

Two full-time online programs opened in Oklahoma in 2010-11: the Oklahoma Virtual High School and the Oklahoma Virtual Academy. Another full-time virtual school, the Oklahoma Connections Academy, opened in fall 2011.

In 2010, legislation in Virginia allowed local school boards to contract with online providers to create online learning opportunities for K-12 students, providing an alternative to the statewide virtual school for the first time. The first 13 of those programs have been approved by the state board of education to provide supplemental and full-time online options for students in 2011-12.


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