Utah’s policy was the model for what the program’s conservative backers had imagined. In fact, its legislation was one of two—the other one is based on policies in Louisiana and Texas—officially approved by the Koch-backed ALEC. The disaster that the state’s public-school districts anticipated never materialized—partly because, within a few months, many of those districts had established online schools to compete for dollars with the online charter schools.
Canyons School District, for example, went from having no online students in 2011 to 1,900 this past year, all of whom are enrolled part time and the vast majority of whom come from within the district, said Darren Draper, who runs what’s believed to be the district’s largest part-time school. “If we didn’t build [Canyons Virtual High School], we would have many students going elsewhere, without question,” Draper said. Just under 1,400 students statewide took an online class outside of their district in 2014-15, according to preliminary figures, meaning district budgets were largely spared. In the end, both advocates and skeptics of the change can claim victory in Utah—at least so far.
Course Access backers, however, claim credit for creating the competition that spurred the public schools to change. “The amount of options skyrocketed in some form or another,” said Robyn Bagley, who chairs the board for the Utah group Parents for Choice in Education, emphasizing that the program will continue to expand.
But Grover doesn’t expect to see a spike in numbers, arguing that most parents prefer to have their kids go to a physical campus. “They want them at school learning,” he said. “It’s their identity.”
Rural school districts across Texas are using its version of Course Access to ensure students fulfill basic high-school requirements and even to save money. In the tiny 100-student Dell City Independent School District, every single secondary-school student was enrolled in an online social-studies class after the district’s teacher left mid-year. Algebra II and Spanish classes were also offered virtually, said Veronica Gomez, a P.E. teacher who doubles as a liaison to state’s Court Access program, Texas Virtual Academy Network. We’re “out in the middle of nowhere,” she said, stressing that staff shortages has forced the district to offer online options. But the online program has other advantages, too: “It’s cheaper for us. We don’t have to pay benefits or anything like that.”
Most Texas districts, however, appear to be taking a different route: opting to spend money on their own schools and teachers rather than on online classes. When the state originally started up the program’s catalog, in 2009, students could take courses online without the districts having to cover the costs; the state had allocated a separate pool of money for the program. But after the state stopped covering the cost, the number of spots filled in the semester-long online classes dropped precipitously, from roughly 22,900 in 2010-11 to about 5,800 three years later.