Family concerns expanded PSEO opportunities

“This isn’t right!” That’s what Rep. Jenifer Loon, R-Eden Prairie, told Minnesota state legislators after talking with parents and students from southwestern Minnesota. Many legislators, including Rep. Ron Kresha, from the Little Falls area (who chaired a hearing on Postsecondary Enrollment Options), agreed. Thanks to those families and legislators, the 2017 Minnesota Legislature changed the Postsecondary Enrollment Option (PSEO) legislation to expand opportunities for students who want to take these courses online.

Photo by Joe Nathan
Kayla Westra and daughter Claire Westra, of Fulda, Minnesota, spoke to state legislators this spring about online PSEO courses.

Minnesota wisely offers a variety of ways for high school students to earn college credit.

The most widely used are courses offered in high schools by high school faculty. Minnesota Department of Education data shows, for example, that in the 2015-16 school year, almost 44,000 students took Advanced Placement courses, more than 30,000 took concurrent enrollment or College in the Schools courses, and more than 3,000 students took International Baccalaureate courses. Meanwhile, about 8,200 took PSEO courses on college campuses or online. (More information here: http://bit.ly/2ujM0EF.)

The Center for School Change, where I work, has advocated for all of these options. This year, we supported increased funding for courses offered in high schools and efforts to strengthen the PSEO law.

Parents like Kayla Westra and students like her daughter, 2017 high school graduate Claire Westra, showed a lot of courage in showing up to testify. It’s not easy in many communities to question how things are done. But the Westras pointed out that some districts were refusing to allow students to use computers or rooms in the school to take online PSEO.

This is important for several reasons. Public transportation is not available in many communities that would allow students to travel between their high school and a college or university, and many high school students don’t have a car they can use for that commute. In many cases, students want to take mostly courses offered by their high school teachers, and just one or two courses offered by college faculty. And finally, PSEO online makes it easier for students wishing to participate in after school extra-curricular programs to stay in the high school building, rather than travel back and forth between the high school and college.

As Claire Westra explained to a Minnesota Senate Education Committee, she has taken courses both at Fulda High School and online from Minnesota West Community and Technical College. As a Fulda High School senior, she was in the National Honor Society, band and choir, and on the volleyball and basketball teams. She took two online PSEO courses: introduction to speech and a sophomore-level biology class. But her school district required her to leave the building to take those courses rather than allow her to sit in a high school room where computers were available.

Ultimately, the Legislature decided, beginning in the 2017-18 school year: “A school district must allow a student enrolled in a PSEO course to remain at the school site during regular school hours. Districts must adopt a policy that provides PSEO students reasonable access during regular school hours to a computer and other technology resources that the student needs to complete coursework for a PSEO course.”

In addition to the Westras, a number of high school students and parents asked the Legislature to require districts to either equally weight all courses or equally weight all dual-credit courses. Legislators compromised on this. They decided to require that districts adopt a policy on this and post it on their website. Legislators also accepted recommendations from education groups that want to retain the ban on colleges and universities telling students at small high schools that they can save money by taking PSEO courses.

Money is one of the central issues in education. PSEO is controversial in part because dollars follow students. I understand that some educators prefer students to take courses their high school teachers offer, rather than those offered by college faculty, for that reason. But I think that legislators – both Republican and DFL – were wise to listen to people like Claire and Kayla Westra. — Joe Nathan  (Editor’s note: Joe Nathan, formerly a Minnesota public school teacher, administrator and PTA president, is director of the Center for School Change. Reactions are welcome at [email protected])