Idaho is set to become first state in the nation to require high school students to take at least two credits online to graduate, a move prompted by growing concerns that students need to be better prepared to take online courses in college and for job training.
Idaho now joins Alabama, Florida, and Michigan as the only states requiring at least one credit of online learning for graduation, as well as several school districts that have put similar requirements in place in recent years.
But the measure in Idaho—which is part of a sweeping education overhaul that introduces teacher merit pay and phases in laptops for every high school teacher and student—did not happen easily. There was heavy criticism of the plan at public hearings this past summer, well before the state board of education gave the requirement final approval this month.
Plus, a group of parents and teachers met the deadline to put a measure before voters in November 2012 to repeal the virtual learning requirement, which goes into effect for students entering 9th grade in fall 2012.
Proponents say the virtual classes will help the state save money and better prepare students for college and job training. But opponents claim the measure will essentially replace teachers with computers and shift state taxpayer money to the out-of-state companies that will be tapped to provide the online learning services.
What classes students can take online and whether those classes are provided by the state’s online course provider or private providers will be up to the local districts.
In 2010, more than 4 million K-12 students participated in a formal online learning program.
SOURCE: International Association for K-12 Online Learning
A task force aimed at helping implement the plan to increase technology in the classroom met last week at the Idaho Capitol in Boise. The goal is to provide schools with a list of online course providers approved and contracted by the state to offer classes to Idaho students, said Tom Luna, the state’s public schools chief.
The education board gave the online graduation requirement its initial approval in September, following heavy opposition voiced at public hearings across Idaho. State board trustees collected more feedback during a 21-day public comment period last month. Board members said a majority of comments were against an online learning requirement.
However, the opposition was not solely directed at the online learning component, said Mark Browning, the communications officer for the state board of education. “A lot of it was directed at the legislation itself,” he said.
The Idaho Education Association, Idaho’s teachers’ union, blasted the state board’s vote saying the board “overruled the wishes of a majority of Idahoans and disregarded parental choice” by mandating the online credits.
Although three other states require some form of online learning for graduation, Idaho is the first state to require two credits online.
“Everything is moving online, and we’re doing our students a disservice if we’re not giving them an opportunity in this arena,” said state board President Richard Westerberg in a press release. “Our own [higher education] institutions tell us that high school students need to have online learning skills to be more successful once they arrive on campus.”
Feedback from the higher education community in the state indicated that students were not prepared for the online learning and technical knowledge they needed to be successful after high school, said Mr. Browning, the spokesman for the state board.
“We felt in order to really properly prepare our students for postsecondary and career readiness, they needed to complete an online learning component,” he said. Although the implementation of the online course requirements will be largely managed by the state department of education and the local districts, the intention is to allow students to complete online courses during school hours with school-provided equipment in order to address equity issues, said Mr. Browning.
To online learning advocates, the two-credit requirement seems reasonable.
“There is still a live teacher. It may be at a distance, but that teacher is still instructing and interacting with the student,” said Susan Patrick, the president of the International Association for K-12 Online Learning, a Washington-based nonprofit.
But Kendra Wisenbaker, an elementary school teacher in the 35,000-student Joint School District No. 2, is among those questioning the Idaho plan.
“I am a little conflicted, I am. It won’t work for every kid, and I think requiring it is a horrible idea,” said Ms. Wisenbaker, despite conceding that some students may thrive learning online. “But it shouldn’t be an option for saving money.”
‘Bound to Follow the Law’
Under the education changes, high school students will also be allowed to enroll in any state-approved online class starting next fall—with or without permission from their school districts. The company that provides that online course will then be entitled to two-thirds of the state funding sent to the school district for that student for that class period.
At least one lawmaker on Mr. Luna’s task force on education reform has expressed concerns that companies picked to provide the online courses could, in some cases, tap more state funding from some of Idaho’s smaller school districts. That’s because they receive more money per student under Idaho’s funding formula.
For example, an online course company could collect amounts that range from $210 per semester for offering a class to a student in Boise, the state’s largest population center, to $733 for a student in Midvale, a rural town of fewer than 200 residents, according to state estimates.
Voters will have a chance to overturn the new laws in the November 2012 election, but until then, “we are bound to follow the law,” said the state board spokesman, Mr. Browning.
Staff Writer Katie Ash and McClatchy-Tribune Information Services contributed to this article.
Copyright © 2011 Associated Press
A version of this article appeared in the November 16, 2011 edition of Education Week as Idaho Sets the Stage for New E-Learning Requirement