Earlier this month, I wrote about an emerging trend in school choice policy: course access programs, which allow students to direct a portion of their per-pupil funding toward courses outside of their school offered by approved providers. For example, students in Michigan may choose two online courses per term, and tuition is drawn from the student’s per-pupil expenditure. Michigan Virtual School offers courses in art history, advanced math and science, and foreign languages. Courses like these are typically difficult to staff in rural and remote school districts, where teacher recruitment is a challenge.
In Missouri, 88 percent of school districts are classified as rural, and in 2014 almost 15 percent of Missouri school districts enrolled a student population of 150 or less. A course access program has the potential to provide diverse curriculum options for students in these districts, as well as an opportunity for local school districts to earn revenue through student enrollment outside district boundaries.
Guthrie Common School District in Texas provides an example of the possibilities offered by course access programs. In 2013, the district enrolled 91 students. Like many small, rural school districts, Guthrie faced staffing challenges. According to a recent report, the district could not afford to hire a foreign language instructor, posing a problem for students wanting to attend the University of Texas, which has a foreign language admission requirement.
To solve this program, Guthrie leveraged the state’s course access program and partnered with Rosetta Stone to create state curriculum–aligned Spanish courses. Now, students from Guthrie who want to get into the University of Texas have a chance.
But that’s not the end of the story. Because of the flexibility built into the program, Guthrie was allowed to enroll students from other districts. Guthrie Virtual School now enrolls 850 students, and offers programs in multiple subject areas. Students from around the state can access these courses from their own brick-and-mortar schools.
A small, rural school district in Missouri in Guthrie’s situation would have few choices: either merge with another district, or continue to beat the drum for more education spending.
Guthrie did neither.
Districts like Guthrie show that with a little creativity, students in rural and remote school districts can have access to the course opportunities their urban and suburban counterparts already enjoy, but policy must set the stage for innovation to take place.