Educational Opportunities in Wisconsin

In Wisconsin the options and opportunities available for students are more expansive than people usually realize. Our students have the ability to attend a school in a different school district through the state’s open enrollment program, can take classes during high school that will prepare them to enter the workforce after graduation or can earn college credit while they are in high school. The opportunities to structure each student’s school experience to meet their needs is great. In the coming weeks, I am going to share with you some of the different programs available to Wisconsin students. Today, I’m going to outline Wisconsin’s Course Options program.

Before Course Options, high school students could take up to two courses at a time at a non-resident school district through the part-time open enrollment program, which has been on the books since the 1998-1999 School Year. Under part-time open enrollment, resident school districts paid non-resident school districts the cost of the course(s) provided to a pupil, as determined by the Department of Public Instruction. An example of part-time open enrollment would be a student in a district without a specific foreign language or advanced math class taking that class in a neighboring district.

A second program also existed called concurrent enrollment, which is when a student takes a class for college credit at their high school. If a student wanted to receive college credit for the course, they would pay tuition to an institution within the University of Wisconsin System at a reduced rate either directly or indirectly.

The 2013-15 state budget made changes to part-time open enrollment, which created a new program called Course Options that expanded educational opportunities for students. Instead of being able to only take courses at another school district, Course Options gave students the ability to take courses at any educational institution.

Under the “Course Options” section in state law,an Educational Institution is defined as: a public school in a nonresident school district; the University of Wisconsin System; a technical college; nonprofit institutions of higher education; a tribal college; a charter school; or a nonprofit organization that has been approved by the Department of Public Instruction (DPI).

By expanding the options for courses, students have a greater opportunity to find classes that help them meet their academic and career goals.  It’s easy to support the idea of giving students all the opportunities possible to achieve academic success and pursue a career, but it’s a bit harder to figure out how to pay for it.

It is important to note that before the 2015-17 state budget, the “Course Options” section under state law contained three key provisions related to the payment of courses provided under “Course Options.” State law prohibited an educational institution from charging a student and the student’s school board for any additional payments related to the courses, required the resident school board to pay for a pupil attending courses at an educational institution, and prohibited a school district from denying an application based on “undue financial burden” to the resident school district.

In 2014, an unintended consequence of creating “Course Options” became evident following a formal opinion from former Attorney General J.B. Van Hollen. In that opinion, Wisconsin’s Attorney General determined that Course Options applied to a concurrent enrollment course offered jointly by a school district and the University of Wisconsin System. This means that if a student takes a concurrent enrollment course then: (a) a resident school board would need to pay for the course obtained through the Course Options program, (b) an educational institution may not charge the student for the concurrent enrollment course, and (c) the resident school board could not deny a student’s application for a concurrent enrollment course if a district could not afford it.

The University of Wisconsin System covered the cost of the Course Options concurrent enrollment program in the 2014-15 School Year, but it could not continue to fund these courses. We heard from school districts that this was a serious problem and the Wisconsin State Legislature needed to figure out a way to fix it.

To preserve the Course Options program for students who can benefit from it, the Joint Finance Committee included a provision in the 2015-17 state budget to allow institutions of higher education the ability to charge high school students or their parents for college classes taken as a part of the Course Options program as long as the student is receiving postsecondary credit. This change gives school districts and colleges the ability to work together to set the fees for high school students participating in the program and students will still be able to access college courses during their high school careers.

If you have any questions about any of the information I have included or if you have suggestions on other topics or issues you would like learn more about, you may call my office toll-free at (800) 991-5541; write me at P.O. Box 7882, Madison, WI  53708; or e-mail me at: Sen.Olsen@legis.state.wi.us. You can also sign up for our newsletter at our website: http://www.legis.state.wi.us/senate/sen14/news/index.htm.