Idaho on Thursday became the first state in the nation to require high school students to take at least two credits online to graduate, despite heavy criticism of the plan at a series of public hearings.
The measure is part of a sweeping education overhaul that includes teacher merit pay and phasing in laptops for every high school teacher and student.
Proponents say the virtual classes would help save money and better prepare students for college, where many courses are offered online. But opponents claim they replace teachers with computers and will shift state taxpayer money to the for-profit, out-of-state companies that would be tapped to provide the online curriculum and laptops to students.
The state Board of Education approved the measure Thursday. Board staff had recommended giving it the green light.
The board gave the online requirement its initial OK in September despite opposition at public hearings this summer. Trustees collected more feedback during a 21-day public comment period last month. A majority of the commenters said Idaho shouldn't make online learning a requirement, according to board staff.
Schools nationwide offer virtual classes, but just three states — Alabama, Florida and Michigan — have adopted rules since 2006 to require online learning, according to the International Association of K-12 Online Learning.
The online rules vary from state to state, but Idaho would be the first to require two credits online.
The requirement seems reasonable to online learning advocates, who say children need to be prepared for the world that awaits them after high school.
"There is still a live teacher. It may be at a distance, but that teacher is still instructing and interacting with the student," said Susan Patrick, president of the International Association for K-12 Online Learning.
Kendra Wisenbaker, 28, is among those questioning the Idaho plan.
"The poor kids are guinea pigs," said Wisenbaker, an elementary school teacher in Meridian, the state's largest school district.
Like many of her students, Wisenbaker is on Facebook, and she spends several hours a day online. But when it comes to requiring her tech-savvy kids to learn in a virtual classroom once they enter high school, Wisenbaker is among Idaho teachers who aren't so sure.
"I am a little conflicted, I am. It won't work for every kid, and I think requiring it is a horrible idea," said Wisenbaker, who also reasons that some students may thrive learning online. "But it shouldn't be an option for saving money," she said during an interview with The Associated Press.
In Idaho, members of the state Board of Education have said most of the opposition is directed at new education laws as a whole — not just the online requirements.
Nationwide, state legislatures tackled education policy this year and triggered protests from teachers over proposed changes to their collective bargaining rights, and how they are evaluated and paid. But Idaho has made some of the most sweeping changes, according to education experts.
The state is introducing teacher merit pay, limiting union bargaining rights and shifting money from salaries toward changes such as more classroom technology, as part of the changes backed by public schools chief Tom Luna and the governor.
The overhaul has drawn heavy criticism, including from educators. But to others, Luna is changing a system that was badly broken and they have commended him for restructuring how Idaho's scarce education dollars are spent.
A group seeking to recall Luna over the education changes failed to collect enough voter signatures earlier this year, but parents and teachers who want to overturn the new laws did meet a June deadline to put three repeal measures on the November 2012 ballot.