Plans to expand school choice from President Donald Trump, U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos, and Congress have largely focused on high-profile measures like vouchers and tax-credit scholarships. But there’s another option for the Trump administration to promote, one that’s supported in multiple sections of the Every Student Succeeds Act and that many states are already using.
Course choice, also known as course access, allows for parents and students to select various pre-approved courses beyond what their districts normally offer. The courses, many of which are taught online, can include everything from university classes and SAT preparation to welder training.
DeVos highlighted course choice in an interview earlier this year with Town Hall, a conservative news website. And one of her early hires at the U.S. Department of Education, Michael Brickman, wrote about the benefits of course choice when he worked at the Thomas B. Fordham Institute, a Washington think tank that supports educational choice.
States can choose to set aside 3 percent of their Title I money under the “direct student services” provision of ESSA for course choice, among other programs. States could also potentially use Title IV block grants authorized (but not yet funded) for states to provide well-rounded educational programs and school improvement programs under Title I to boost course choice.
“It’s something that I think DeVos could make a very big difference on. She could just talk about it,” said Max Eden, a senior fellow at the right-leaning Manhattan Institute. “There is no political risk to pushing it. And there is only credit for encouraging it.”
A Complex Course of Action
But there are challenges related to course choice that several states and districts have faced. These include the quality of the courses themselves, decisions on building appropriate funding mechanisms, barriers to access because of a limited teacher workforce or limited internet access, and the difficulty of tracking student performance in the courses offered.
John Watson, the founder of Evergreen Education Group, a research and consulting firm, said course choice can be a “tremendously powerful” tool to help a variety of students access such courses as advanced calculus and world languages that they otherwise couldn’t take.
But, he said, “I think it’s far more complex than school choice. ... You hold the possibility of very rapidly upending funding and accountability mechanisms that are very much built around schools and districts, and not individual course providers. Schools are more than just a collection of courses kids are taking.”
Defining course choice itself can be tricky. Reports from the Foundation for Excellence in Education, a research and advocacy group founded by former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush that supports course access, and Evergreen Education list 15 states that offer course choice in some form.
Although most programs are still relatively small, their size and scope vary. Arizona’s online instruction program, for example, enrolled 46,900 individual students.
How the money flows (and how much there is) also varies. In DeVos’ home state of Michigan, for example, online providers set the cost of individual courses, although payment must be made regardless of whether a student completes the course.
Helping Postsecondary Outcomes
Idaho has been experimenting with course-access models for several years now. Its newest program, Fast Forward, provides a window into the challenges and opportunities in providing such course options.
Fast Forward began this school year, and uses a simple funding structure: Every 7th through 12th grader now has $4,125 to spend on approved high school and college-credit-bearing courses of his or her choice.
Students can select overload courses, which are high school classes that go beyond a student’s regular courseload, or dual-credit courses, which offer college and high school credits simultaneously. Students can also take college-credit-bearing exams, such as Advanced Placement, International Baccalaureate, and professional-certification tests for such varied fields as welding and nursing.
The Fast Forward program is part of ongoing “statewide efforts to really focus on how do we get more kids to graduate and go on to some postsecondary endeavor,” said Matt McCarter, the director of student engagement, career, and technical readiness for the Idaho education department. Unlike in some other states, the Idaho course-choice funds can only be used for advancement—not for remediation or credit recovery.
The legislature appropriated $6 million for the program for fiscal year 2017. The state education department estimates that it will cost closer to $11 million for the year, however, given that about 25,000 students are participating. The state’s rainy-day fund will back up the excess cost.
At Westside High School in Dayton, Idaho, nearly all students are taking advantage of the Fast Forward funds, according to Principal Tyler Teleford. He said that’s in part because a majority of teachers there are certified to teach dual-credit courses—a push that began even before Fast Forward.
Students across the state attending schools without certified dual-credit teachers have the option of taking online courses through the Idaho Digital Learning Academy, a state-run virtual school.
Overall, the Fast Forward program has been well-received, said Dave Harbison, the communications director for the Idaho Education Association. “We don’t have any evidence on the back end yet that it’s really been successful, but as it ramps up it seems to be going well.”
But the Idaho program does come with risks. Students who fail a course using Fast Forward dollars cannot tap into their aid again until they pay for a class out of pocket. A failing grade also goes on a student’s permanent college record.
“I don’t want to push it and say it’s right for every kid, because it’s not,” said Suzi Quintal, a counselor at Prairie Senior High School in Cottonwood, Idaho.
And sometimes students who take overload courses and get too far ahead can feel unmotivated by their junior or senior year, said Teleford: “I’ve seen grades plummet.”
In addition, the program can put pressure on already-overworked school counselors, who must communicate with families about course options and help keep students on track.
It’s clear that some districts are better-equipped to support students in the program than others. But according to the Idaho education department, initial evidence suggests that middle-income districts are taking part in the program more often than wealthier districts.
“It’s great. It means [it’s helping] the middle-class families who ... would otherwise be struggling to send kids to college,” said Tina Polishchuk, who coordinates the program.
Louisiana also has a high-profile course-choice program, in which about 25,000 students are participating. The state has funded it at $7.5 million, divided proportionally among all public schools depending on their enrollments in grades 7-12. Gov. John Bel Edwards, a Democrat, is advocating for another $10 million to be added during the upcoming legislative session.
Students can take classes from approved public and private universities, technical colleges, the Florida Virtual School and other online providers, and even business and industry groups, such as Associated Builders and Contractors.
In both Idaho and Louisiana, state education department officials say the prospect of being able to use federal dollars toward course choice wouldn’t change their existing programs much. But it might allow for some additional services.
Ken Bradford, the assistant superintendent for the Louisiana education department’s office of content, said the direct-student-services funds could help bring foreign-language classes to elementary schools and algebra to middle schools. And it might pay for tutoring across the grade levels. “But our state course-choice program would probably be at a maintenance level,” he said.
‘Where We Need to Go’
Regardless of where the money comes from, Cynthia Posey, the legislative director for the Louisiana Federation of Teachers, said course providers must be closely vetted up front.
“We don’t have a problem with children getting quality instruction. But not all instruction is created equal,” Posey said.
In New Mexico, the state’s online course-access program has allowed more Hispanic children in particular to take AP courses, said Chris Ruszkowski, the state’s deputy secretary of education for policy and programs. The state also is engaging its top teachers in creating course content.
But right now, although the state collects completion rates and grades for IDEAL, the state’s course-access program, parents and the general public in New Mexico don’t know, for example, whether students using course-access money to take Advanced Placement classes are passing AP exams at a lower or higher rate than students in other AP course formats. Ruszkowski sees tackling that issue as a next step for IDEAL.
“That is not data that New Mexico has traditionally collected and reported. But I do think that is where we need to go,” Ruszkowski said.
In its draft ESSA plan, New Mexico does plan to use the direct-student-services set-aside for course access for dual-credit and credit-recovery courses, among other programs.
A version of this article appeared in the April 05, 2017 edition of Education Week as Course Access: A Different Way to Expand School Choice?