Eliminate the State’s “Seat-Time Requirement” for Online Courses

One large obstacle to expanding online learning opportunities in Michigan is an auditing procedure for counting students. Each local district’s operating costs are partially funded through the state’s foundation allowance, a state-guaranteed minimum allotment that ranges from $7,162 to $8,489 for each student enrolled in most districts.[*] Michigan law and administrative rules stipulate that a district must comply with a number of so-called “seat-time requirements” if the district wishes to collect the full state foundation allowance on behalf of a high school student taking six courses or more per semester — a “full” course load.[†]

In particular, the manual lists provisions for “non-conventional pupils,” including those enrolled in online courses.[79] The pupil accounting rules outlined in the manual require that online courses “generate credit towards the pupil’s high school diploma,” “be academic in nature” and “be approved by the local school board.” A “teacher-of-record must be identified” for the course, and a certified school district teacher “must be assigned to the pupil” to serve as an “on-site-mentor.”[80]

In addition, the state pupil accounting rules indicate that a district may collect the full state foundation allowance on behalf of a student only if the student takes no more than two online learning courses off-site. In other words, if an otherwise full-time student takes more than two online learning courses, the district will lose money if the student does not take these extra online courses in a district classroom under the supervision of one of the district’s certified teachers.[81] This provision is a key part of the state’s seat-time requirements.[‡]

Notice that the “seat-time requirement” does not create a problem for districts that simply convert a face-to-face course into an online one. Some single-district virtual learning programs work this way and are therefore unaffected by the state’s seat-time requirements, since students are taking the courses in district-provided school buildings with a state-certified teacher.

Similarly, districts may count students taking a virtual course offered by a postsecondary institution just as they would any other students “dual-enrolled” in a postsecondary institution. Pupils are not limited in the total number of courses that they may take online while dual-enrolled, but they must take at least one traditional course in their district where attendance is required at the same time that they are dual-enrolled in online courses.[82] The district pays the student’s tuition and fees to the postsecondary institution for each virtual course the student takes.[83]

Hence, seat-time requirements are not a real problem for dual-enrollment online learning and some single-district virtual programs. Nor do they matter for Michigan’s virtual charter schools, since state law frees them from seat-time requirements.[84]

Seat-time requirements do pose a problem, however, for MVS, for multi-district programs and for single-district programs offering comprehensive alternative education virtual programs. These programs seek to enroll students outside their immediate locale or students who are unable or unwilling to be present regularly at a brick-and-mortar school site.

The state superintendent of public instruction has the legal authority to waive the two-class maximum for online learning and the required attendance in a schoolroom class for high school students in an approved “alternative education program or another innovative program.”[85] In 2007, Superintendent of Public Instruction Michael Flanagan invited schools to seek such waivers for innovative programs like virtual schooling.[86] Any full-time online courses still needed to meet other seat-time requirements, but the waiver allowed a district to receive a full foundation allowance for a student who took more than two online learning courses and did not regularly attend classes in a school building.[87] The Michigan Department of Education also created pupil accounting procedures to guard against districts’ attempting to use the waivers to collect state aid for students not genuinely enrolled.[88]

Most of the seat-time waivers granted in the following school year were for single-district and multi-district programs aimed at serving “dropouts” or other students at risk of dropping out. The districts of Wyoming, Montrose, Jackson, Marquette, Avondale, Waterford, Chippewa Hills and Berrien Springs were all approved for seat-time waivers.[89]

Some districts sought waivers to allow their general education secondary students to take district-approved online learning courses without seat-time requirements. Traverse City Area Public Schools was approved for a waiver that allows a maximum of 25 percent of its high school pupils to take more than two of their courses online and not be required to enter a classroom regularly.[90] TCAPS’ program connects students to courses offered through MVS and CyberEd Specialists, a private, for-profit company started by a group of Traverse City teachers.[91]

For the 2008-2009 school year, Genesee Intermediate School District successfully launched an even more expansive seat-time waiver program than Traverse City had. GISD applied for and received a seat-time waiver that could be used by every school district in Genesee County, as long as not more than 25 percent of a local district’s high school population uses the waiver. Districts would enroll their students through the GenNET program and gain access to a host of courses offered by a variety of providers. In the 2009-2010 school year, the superintendent of public instruction extended this GenNET seat-time waiver to every local school district in the state, though with an additional limitation. Not only could no more than 25 percent of a district’s high school students utilize the waiver for GenNET courses, but also no more than 10 percent of high school pupils in an intermediate school district could use the waiver for GenNET courses.[92]

Despite these limitations regarding the seat-time waiver, the GenNET program appears headed for growth. All 57 intermediate school districts in the state have signed up for the waiver, and 512 of Michigan’s 551 school districts have signed up as well.[93] In the first four months of the statewide waiver’s availability in 2009, students registered for nearly 2,000 courses.[94]

The demand for programs like GenNET and MVS and the demand for seat-time waivers sends a clear signal that students desire access to more online learning opportunities. To expand the availability of online learning programs, the Legislature should make the seat-time waiver permanent for any virtual learning programs meeting legislatively defined standards. Without explicit legislative approval, seat-time waivers throughout the state could be eliminated instantly by a subsequent superintendent of public instruction.[95]

Such a legislative codification of the seat-time waiver would bolster the Michigan Department of Education’s “Project ReImagine.” In 2009, the department created the program to challenge school districts to find new ways to deliver instruction and establish a “new normal.”[96] The department was hoping to “implement systemic change” and encourage districts to “be bold.”[97] If districts were allowed to boldly expand their use of online learning without fear of losing their share of state aid due to seat-time requirements, and if students were allowed to participate in more virtual learning opportunities, the result could be a boost to student achievement and even a reduction in costs for schools.

[*] Mary Ann Cleary, “School Aid” (Michigan House Fiscal Agency, 2010), 32, goo.gl/HxtNd. The statutory foundation allowance is $7,316, but the Legislature reduced per-pupil state funding for schools by $154 in fiscal 2010, which makes the effective foundation allowance $7,162. For more information about the foundation allowance, see Ryan S. Olson and Michael D. LaFaive, A Michigan School Money Primer for Policymakers, School Officials, Media and Residents (Midland, Mich.: Mackinac Center for Public Policy, 2007), 55-78.

[†] MCL § 388.1621b(3); Michigan Administrative Rule 340.7(5). These requirements are used to determine the portion of state aid that school districts must pay on behalf of a high school student enrolling in a course at a postsecondary institution. The procedure for calculating the proration can be found at “5GA — Postsecondary (Dual) Enrollment and Career and Technical Preparation” (Michigan Department of Education, 2009), 4-6, goo.gl/DuK7p (accessed Jan. 15, 2011). Student membership in virtual learning courses is likewise calculated using the method employed for students enrolled in classes at postsecondary institutions. (“Pupil Accounting Manual: Section 5-O-A — Michigan Virtual Learning, Distance Learning, and Independent Study” (Michigan Department of Education, 2010), 2, goo.gl/8Q3YN (accessed Jan. 10, 2011).)

[‡] The seat-time requirements in the Michigan Department of Education Pupil Accounting Manual also stipulate that a district can earn a partial foundation allowance for a student taking two online courses off-site only if the student is also “enrolled in and attending at least one course offered by the district in which credit is earned and regular daily attendance is required.” “Pupil Accounting Manual: Section 5-O-A — Michigan Virtual Learning, Distance Learning, and Independent Study” (Michigan Department of Education, 2010), 1-2, goo.gl/8Q3YN (accessed Jan. 10, 2011).

[79] “Pupil Accounting Manual: Section 5” (Michigan Department of Education, 2008), http://www.michigan.gov/documents/Section-5_41428_7.pdf (accessed Jan. 15, 2011). For a full list of “non-conventional pupils,” see: “Pupil Accounting Manual” (Michigan Department of Education, 2009), goo.gl/2xVaO (accessed Jan. 17, 2011).

[80] “Pupil Accounting Manual: Section 5-O-A — Michigan Virtual Learning, Distance Learning, and Independent Study” (Michigan Department of Education, 2010), 2, goo.gl/70Fuf (accessed Jan. 10, 2011).

[81] Ibid., 1.

[82] Ibid.

[83] Ibid., 2.

[84] MCL § 388.1606(4).

[85] MCL § 388.1701(9).

[86] Michael Flanagan, “Seat Time Waiver Request Letter” (Michigan Department of Education, 2007), goo.gl/YVZyJ (accessed Jan. 14, 2011).

[87] “Pupil Accounting Manual: Section 5-O-A — Michigan Virtual Learning, Distance Learning, and Independent Study” (Michigan Department of Education, 2010), 4, http://www.michigan.gov/documents/5O-VirtualHS-DistLearning_41466_7.pdf (accessed Jan. 10, 2011).

[88] “Pupil Accounting Manual: Section 5-O-B — Seat Time Waiver” (Michigan Department of Education, 2010), http://www.michigan.gov/ documents/mde/5-O-B_SeatTimeWaivers_329678_7.pdf (accessed Dec. 27, 2010).

89 “Summary of Seat Time Waivers” (Michigan Department of Education, 2009), http://www.michigan.gov/documents/mde/Item_VI_278814_7.doc (accessed Jan. 11, 2011).

[90] Ibid.

[91] For more about CyberEd Specialists, see: “Who We Are” (CyberEd Specialists, LLC), http://www.cyberedschools.com/who-we-are.html (accessed Jan. 12, 2011).

[92] Svitkovich, Hagel, and Schantz, “A Seat Time Waiver for You: Genesee County’s Seat Time Waiver Goes Statewide” (paper presented at the Michigan Association of School Administrators, Detroit, Michigan, http://www.michiganedusource.org/Conferences/mw10/GenNet.ppt (accessed April 1, 2010).

[93] Thomas Svitkovich, telephone correspondence with Michael Van Beek, Feb. 15, 2010.

[94] “STW Totals for ISD-RESDs 7/1/2009 - 11/12/2009” (Genesee Intermediate School District, 2009), goo.gl/annBy (accessed Jan. 17, 2011).

[95] “Pupil Accounting Manual: Section 5-O-B — Seat Time Waiver” (Michigan Department of Education, 2010), 1, goo.gl/yEFsQ (accessed Dec. 27, 2010).

[96] “Re-Imagining Education in Michigan” (Michigan Department of Education, 2009), goo.gl/1uBu5 (accessed Jan. 15, 2011).

[97] “Memorandum: Project Reimagine Proposal Guidelines” (Michigan Department of Education, 2009), goo.gl/4d5qy  (accessed Jan. 15, 2011).