The need for students to access courses beyond their home district is evident in the places where higher-level college prep courses are not available. In 2016, one in seven Michigan secondary students attended schools that did not offer a physics class. Twice as many could not take calculus at the school where they were enrolled. About one-fifth of high schoolers were without any Advanced Placement course options on campus. In all cases, low-income, minority and rural students were all significantly more likely to attend schools where these academic offerings were lacking.
But the need for virtual options is much broader than these advanced courses. During the pandemic, many families expressed a preference for caution in keeping their children home rather than returning them to their regular classrooms, even if the quality of learning was diminished. Other families, while seeing crucial advantages in preserving in-person instruction, nonetheless, discovered the benefit of greater flexibility in students taking some courses virtually. These trends are increasing demand for online options.
Since 2013, all Michigan students in grades six and higher have been eligible to take up to two tuition-free, online courses during any given academic term. The courses must count toward their graduation requirements. The district where a student is enrolled can deny a request if the course costs too much or if the student has failed a virtual course in the same subject area within the previous two years. Permission from the district of enrollment is needed for an elementary-level student to participate or for an older student to take additional courses.
Under current law, students may choose from a statewide catalog, to take courses from an intermediate school district, Michigan Virtual or a community college to provide dual-enrollment credit. These courses are paid for by the district where they are enrolled — the district that received state funding on behalf of the student. Policymakers should expand the list of eligible course providers to also include online programs that are available through public charter schools, particularly online schools, and public universities. The catalog should include both academic courses delivered virtually and in-person and hybrid offerings, as well as career and apprenticeship programs operated by a district or set up in partnership with one or more districts.
Since 2011, Utah has allowed its secondary students the same freedom to enroll in virtual programs. They currently may take up to six online credits in a given year.[*] Unlike in Michigan, the Utah Statewide Online Education Program affords students choices from a broad range of public school and higher education providers. The state sets a few basic parameters for a formal agreement process by which a student’s home district acknowledges credits received from the outside entity. The district can only reject a credit acknowledgment for a handful of specific reasons – mainly, that a course doesn’t line up with the student’s plans for college or career readiness or if the student is already taking a full load of six online credit hours.
Michigan’s existing law provides a usable framework to expand the catalog of course options. A district should not be able to restrict from whom students can receive academic instruction. Students would still be limited to taking classes for which they have completed the prerequisites. All courses should bear credit toward completing the Michigan Merit Curriculum, or comprise eligible electives if the student is on track for graduation.[†] Credit recovery options should remain available for those who have fallen behind in meeting requirements.
[*] Utah Code § 53F.4.503. When the program began, the maximum online course load was two. Starting in 2013, the limit increased by one annually until reaching the current cap of six in 2016-17.
[†] This aligns with existing statewide graduation requirements, which include not only 18 specified credits but also permit “each school district to determine the number of electives offered to their students” and “provides students the flexibility to select additional electives.” See “Michigan Merit Curriculum High School Graduation Requirements” (Michigan Department of Education, 2007), 3, https://perma.cc/AWN4-2SNP.