Madison School District Policy Change Regarding Credit for Non-MMSD Courses

I emailed this message to the Madison School Board:

A policy change has recently been implemented in the MMSD regarding whether students can receive high school credit for courses offered by the MMSD that they take elsewhere (e.g.’s, via correspondence through UW-Extension, Stanford’s EPGY, and Northwestern’s Letterlinks programs, attendance at UW or MATC, summer programs offered through the Wisconsin Center for Academically Talented Youth and Northwestern’s Center for Talent Development).
Prior to this fall, students could receive high school credit for non-MMSD courses as long as they obtained prior written approval that the courses they planned to take were deemed worthy of high school credit. I have recently learned that this is no longer true. Rather, the only non-MMSD courses that can currently be approved for high school credit are ones in which a comparable course is not offered ANYWHERE in the District.
Why the change in policy?

Why was it permissible to implement this change in policy without first having open public discussions regarding its pros and cons followed by a BOE vote whether to approve it? This policy change will adversely affect a wide variety of students with learning needs that differ from the norm. These alternative learners include students who attend Shabazz High School or other alternative programs within the MMSD, students with disabilities or long-term illnesses, academically gifted students who learn at a faster pace, and students who lack the means to transport themselves in a timely manner to a District school that offers courses their neighborhood school does not.
The cost to the MMSD of the previous policy was essentially zero, if not negative. On the other hand, the new policy will be highly detrimental to some students who now may fail to graduate from high school due to lack of sufficient high school credits or specific courses required by the District or State of Wisconsin.
Some students affected by this policy change may leave the MMSD for other school districts or alternative schooling options such as home schooling. The latter will lead to loss of $s to the MMSD. Students lose. The MMSD loses. Thus, I urge you to place this item on the agendas for upcoming BOE and Curriculum and Achievement Meetings.
Thank you for your consideration of this matter.
Sincerely yours,
Janet Mertz,
West area parent

21 thoughts on “Madison School District Policy Change Regarding Credit for Non-MMSD Courses”

  1. I don’t know the specifics of this change in policy, if indeed that is the case, or how it may differ from previous board policy.
    But, it sounds an awful lot like the state’s Youth Options program, and a closer look at that program may provide some insights into the issue. Under the Youth Options program, school districts are required — by law — to pay for students taking courses at other institutions (be it MATC, UW, Edgewood, or others)if a comparable course is not offered in the district. The program was established by the Legislature, ostensibly, to help students “round out” their education and not limit their educational opportunities if a district can’t offer specific programs/courses. It’s used not just by academically gifted students, but also by students seeking, e.g., technical courses in a field like computer design that may not be available at their home district.
    While the law’s intent may have been benign, a friend of mine active in school issues calls it “the mother of all mandates.” It’s a particularly sensitive issue for Madison-area school districts (not just MMSD), because of the plethora of choices available for students beyond the high school walls here. Not that policy should be changed due to anecdotal information, but I’ve heard of instances where students (and their parents) are using the Youth Options program to “double-dip” the system — take a bunch of courses at a local college, use that for high school credit, and then turn around and claim (and receive) college credit for courses they took in high school, paid for by local school district taxpayers. (It’s not unusual, in many districts, for high achieving students to fulfill nearly all of their graduation requirements by the end of their junior year, and use the senior year to explore/take electives. Some go the Youth Options route, and one wonders what the motivation is sometimes.)
    Again, I don’t know the specifics of MMSD’s policy toward Youth Options. But I do think — at a time when all districts are struggling with the financial realities of revenue caps and state mandates — that it’s fair for districts to look at how students are utilizing the Youth Options program. It does seem reasonable, at least to me, to say to students (and their parents) — if you want to take a certain course, please take it where we offer it (and are already paying for it), rather than going the Youth Options route (and making the district pay for it a second time).

  2. The Youth Options Program requires school districts to pay for and give high school credit for up to 18 units (4 1/2 high school credits) of college courses a student may take where the school district does not offer a comparable course. We are discussing here what should happen when the school district claims they offer a comparable course. In this case, the course does not qualify under the Youth Options Program.
    Previously, students could still take such courses for high school credit, with funding from non-District sources (e.g., parents, need-based scholarships) paying the tuition. The MMSD is now claiming they will not approve high school credit toward graduation for these courses even though it costs the District nothing for the students to take them.
    This is a problem in large school districts such as Madison where a course such as AP US History may be offered at one high school, but the student desiring the course attends another high school that does not offer the course, and s/he is unable to travel to the school that does in a timely manner. Another example is a student desiring to take a high school-level course such as geometry, but to do so via a correspondence or non-District summer program because they have alternative learning needs.

  3. There is a big difference between the district paying for a course and granting high school credit for a non-MMSD course.
    For several years, MMSD has not paid for YOP courses at UW and MATC if an equivalent course is offered anywhere in the district–the change now is in refusing to award credit for non-MMSD courses even if the student pays out of pocket.
    It was bad enough when the district wouldn’t cover YOP if the course was offered anywhere in the district. For example, if your student wants to study Italian and they attend West, they’ll have to find their own transportation over to LaFollette (where it was taught a few years ago, anyway IIRC). That this might be technically impossible, from a transportation (+expense) and scheduling standpoint matters not. While it’s much closer to go to UW for that class for a West student, the district wouldn’t pay. Now the district won’t even give that student credit if they go to UW and pay for it themselves. In other words, if you need the credit to graduate, and this includes having to carry a certain number of credits to be considered a full-time student each term, you can’t take Italian.
    I understand the issue of cost to the district. Equity concerns, i.e., that it’s unfair to let those who can self-fund get credit for non-MMSD work, might explain the change in policy, too. However, if a gifted student needs the additional challenge, it’s the district’s job to see that they get it. We wouldn’t ask a special ed student to take a bus across town for one class that might help them in their learning.
    Phil M’s discussion about families getting a district to pay for college courses overlooks an important point: AP courses followed by a decent score on the AP exam afford college credit as well. If you look back over old posts here, you’ll see the great disparity in AP course offerings across MMSD high schools. If it weren’t for YOP, most West students wouldn’t have a crack at half the credits AP students at East and Memorial have available to them.
    One alternative–home school, dipping into MMSD for the courses desired there and elsewhere for the rest. In addition to the cost of paying for those outside courses, there is also no MMSD diploma awarded.

  4. First, I don’t think is a change in policy, but a change in practice. The only applicable policy I can find (3547) is from 1988, consistent with the “new” practice and only mentions UW.
    I think the problem is that the state statute reads:
    (a) Subject to sub. (7t), a pupil taking a course at an institution of higher education for high school credit under this section is not responsible for any portion of the tuition and fees for the course if the school board, or the state superintendent on appeal under sub. (3) (b), has determined that the course is not comparable to a course offered in the school district.
    (d) Subject to sub. (7t), for each pupil attending a technical college under this subsection, the school board shall pay to the technical college district board, in 2 installments payable upon initial enrollment and at the end of the semester, for those courses taken for high school credit, an amount equal to the cost of tuition, course fees, and books for the pupil at the technical college, except that the school board is not responsible for payment for any courses that are comparable to courses offered in the school district.
    If credit is granted, the district must pay. The old practice was in violation of state law.
    There really isn’t anything anyone at MMSD could do give credit to those who pay their own way. If there are villians in this story (I think it is more a case of good intentions mis-directed), they are in the Legislature, not the Doyle building.

  5. “However, if a gifted student needs the additional challenge, it’s the district’s job to see that they get it.”
    Really? Is it the obligation of MMSD — or any school district, for that matter — to provide for every single exact curricular desire of every single student it enrolls? I find that argument, taken (not even) to its logical extreme, to be somewhat silly. School districts are public institutions. Try as they might, public institutions are limited in what they can do, and offer. Even if you think its performance as a public school district is good, bad or indifferent, MMSD strikes me as offering a pretty broad array of curricular programs. That those program don’t meet the exact needs of every single one of its 25,000-some students surprises me not in the least. The key consideration for this debate, it seems to me, is — to what extent is MMSD (and, more broadly, the taxpayers of the district) obligated to meet every single need of every single student? I would suggest there are limits to that.
    Does West foreign languages? Does it offer more than one? If it offers two or three or four, is it really obligated to offer a fifth? If a student exhausts all of those foreign language courses during her high school career, or simply doesn’t want to take any of those languages, and instead wants to take some un-offered language, is it the district’s responsibility to insure — at district expense — that she somehow gets the opportunity to take it? If a student has met her graduation requirements, and finds time on her hands to explore, say, the similarities and differences that the Reformation and Renaissance had on the popular literature of the day, is it the obligation of MMSD to provide that? If that kind of course is taught at UW-Madison, or Edgewood, is it MMSD’s obligation to pay for the West High student’s participation in such a class?
    “AP courses followed by a decent score on the AP exam afford college credit as well.”
    AP courses, at MMSD and other districts I’m aware of, are paid for by the taxpayers of the district and offered to all students. They are part of the curriculum; YOP courses are not. That colleges choose to give credit for strong performances on AP exams is the business of colleges; most high schools I know that offer AP are simply trying to provide a rich and varied curriculum for their college-bound students. AP programs are somewhat regulated — not just any school or teacher can offer it; there are standards — and differ significantly from YOP courses, which districts have no control over. The YOP standard is: if the district doesn’t offer it, you can take it, and the district will pay for it.
    Differences in AP offerings among Madison schools is a different subject, I’d suggest, than this thread.
    “We wouldn’t ask a special ed student to take a bus across town for one class that might help them in their learning.”
    Surely you know that laws, both state and federal, are clearly different for special education students than they are for gifted students. That may or may not be a good thing, from your perspective, but there are obligations under law that districts have to meet for special education students that they don’t for gifted students.

  6. Thomas Mertz’s interpretation of the statutory language cited, on its face, is incorrect. I have not yet tried to find official interpretations of this law (administrative determinations, court opinions), so my argument below may have to be modified due to these official interpretations.
    Here is a layman’s restatement of the legal language of 118.55(6)(a):
    A student taking a college course for high school credit is not responsible for its cost, if the authorities (school board, etc) determine that a comparable course is not offered within the District.
    Mertz’s interpretation of “If credit is granted, the district must pay” is true but only if there is no comparable course. You can’t just ignore the IF condition in the original law (or the lay restatement).
    The bottom line is, if the IF condition is false (which says the District HAS a comparable course) then the language does not place any restrictions on the District — they can pay or not as they wish.
    That statute is a simple IF-THEN statement, which, I’m afraid, too many folks do not know how to interpret. (A competent HS math/logic course is supposed to teach this stuff!).
    I’m going to make a simple statement: “If it’s raining, I won’t go to the baseball game.”
    Now depending what I do and whether it’s raining or not, determine when I’ve lied (or didn’t do as I had promised).
    The scenarios are
    1) It’s raining, and I don’t go to the game — I told the truth.
    2) It’s raining, but I go to the game anyway — I lied
    3) It’s not raining and I go — I told the truth
    4) It’s not raining and I don’t go — I told the truth
    Scenarios 3 and 4 is where most people fail to get it.
    When the IF condition is false, all bets are off. In my original statement, I never said anything about what I would do if it were not raining, so I cannot be held to have lied, no matter if I go to the game or not.
    The law must be interpreted in exactly the same way. Scenario 2 cannot happen (no comparable, district not pay) — violating the law is just bad form.
    “Comparable, district pay” and “comparable, district not pay” are both legal scenarios under the cited section of the statute.
    But, 118.55(6)(b) settles the “comparable, district pay”, “comparable, district not pay” cases. This section says explicitly that the student must pay if the district has comparable courses. So the “comparable, district pay” scenario is illegal under 118.55(6)(b).
    Of the four original scenarios, only 2 are legal scenarios under the statutes
    1) If the district does not have a comparable course, then the district pays for the college course.
    2) If the district has a comparable course, then the student pays for the college course.
    Another way of saying this is
    “The district pays for college courses for high school credit if and only if there is no comparable course in the district”.
    The statutes cited, however, do not address the conditions of receiving HS credit for college courses — they are only relevant when the condition of “receiving HS credit” is true.
    The determination of whether the course satisfies graduation requirements and, if so, the number of credits to be awarded, rests with the School Board under 118.55(3)(b), as informed by 118.33. Determinations are subject to appeal. Under this statute, when the student enrolls in a college course, they must declare to the college, that the course is for HS credit, and then must inform the HS.

  7. Mr. Winkler
    From the start:
    “A policy change has recently been implemented in the MMSD regarding whether students can receive high school credit for courses offered by the MMSD that they take elsewhere.”
    the entire discussion has been about comparable courses taken for credit. The only scenario of concern to Ms Mertz (no relation that I know if) was “comparable course, credit granted.” I saw no reason to repeat that distinction, I assumed that anyone reading this would understand the context. I guess I was wrong. Thank you for the lecture in logic, but it wasn’t needed.
    I don’t think this statement of yours is correct:
    “Comparable, district pay” and “comparable, district not pay” are both legal scenarios under the cited section of the statute.
    I cited the case of the Wisconsin Techincal Colleges (118.55(7r)(d)) and should have also cited the more general case:
    (5) Payment. Subject to sub. (7t), within 30 days after the end of the semester, the school board of the school district in which a pupil attending an institution of higher education under this section is enrolled shall pay the institution of higher education, on behalf of the pupil, the following amount for any course that is taken for high school credit and that is not comparable to a course offered in the school district.
    I am not a lawyer, but my understanding is that the “shall” (in this and (118.55(7r)(d)) denotes a requirement, not an option.

  8. My mistake and apology (to all) (I needed that second cup of coffee). I misread one of Mr. Winkler’s statements.
    As far as I can tell, he was correct to say: “”Comparable, district pay” and “comparable, district not pay” are both legal scenarios under the cited section of the statute.”
    The statute reads:
    (b) A pupil taking a course at an institution of higher education for high school credit under this section is responsible for the tuition and fees for the course if the school board has determined that the course is comparable to a course offered in the school district, unless the state superintendent reverses the school board’s decision on appeal under sub. (3) (b).”
    It appears that districts do have some options.
    Mea culpa.

  9. Legalities aside, what logic would lead the MMSD to deny credit for a college course if it doesn’t have to pay for the course?
    I can think of illogical reasons, but maybe someone can explain the logic behind not granting credit for a course when the student finds some other means for paying for the course.

  10. To repeat–there is a difference between requiring a district to pay for courses taken outside MMSD and allowing a student to receive credit, including credits needed to be considered a full-time student in the district (“residency” credits).
    A student may very well need only one or two classes to finish their curricular requirements in their senior year, but needs to take several more to meet the residency requirments for full-time status. If they want more challenge, they could go elsewhere, on their own dime or with a needs-based scholarship, but now the district says it won’t count, not towards graduation requirements or for residency purposes. The student has to stay in the system, in other words.
    I am a lawyer, although I pretend no special expertise in education law; I say that primarily for full disclosure. However, just for the record, the state does have an obligation to ensure that gifted children’s educational needs are met. The needs of a student with exceptional math talent can be dealt with more directly than a student with talent in foreign language, but the principle is the same.
    Telling a student to take a bus across town to another high school for a class doesn’t mean that it can truly be done. We break down barriers to meaningful education for special needs students so why should we accept the erection of barriers in the education of TAG students?

  11. Based upon reading this blog, the Q&A for the Youth Options program, the MMSD School Board’s own policies, there appear to be options for District Administration to work out a plan cooperatively and in partnership with students, staff and parents as well as with the appropriate institutions that is in the students’ best interests.
    If this does not happen, a next step might be to ask the School Board or one of its committees (Performance and Achievement, Partnership) to have a public discussion on this topic and to get further clarification of the School Board’s policy as needed so we do not put up unnecessary barriers for children’s learning.

  12. Arguing special needs vs. TAG is like apples vs. oranges. Do you honestly believe that every special ed kid gets everything they need? I fight for everything my special needs son gets…and I fight for everything my TAG son gets, so I think it’s ludicrous to inject such “us vs. them” into this discussion. That said, if the feds decided to create a new law similar to IDEA for TAG kids, this would make things very different! And yes, I wish they would!

  13. David,
    It isn’t apples vs oranges–the principle of meeting students’ educational needs is the same.
    This thread is about an MMSD effort to shut down appropriate opportunities, options most often tapped by TAG kids.
    Forget about who pays–the change effectively shuts down all outside opportunities even if self- or scholarship- funded.

  14. I have requested a public discussion of this policy change.
    It adversely affects not only gifted learners, but also other types of alternative learners who may fail to graduate unless they can receive credit for HIGH SCHOOL courses they take via non-traditional methods, e.g., correspondence courses where they learn the material at their own pace in their own way.
    This same topic had come up ~ 4 years ago when the District Administration had enacted an even worse policy, also without public discussion. That time, the policy denied credit for ALL non-MMSD courses, even ones in which the District did not offer a comparable course; the only exception was courses taken through the YOP, an exception they were legally obligated to allow because of State laws.
    Following a loud protest from several constituencies, the policy was withdrawn for reconsideration. I assume the new policy instituted this summer, again without the opportunity for public comment, was the result of this reconsideration.
    To reiterate my questions:
    1. Why is the MMSD enacting policies with essentially no $ cost to the District that hurt some students?
    2. Why are policies that affect students permitted to be changed and enacted without the public first being given an opportunity to comment on them?
    Janet, the other, unrelated Mertz

  15. I’m not disagreeing about the change in policy being foolish. I’m disagreeing with the way you presented your arguement. You consistently try to portray any issue affecting TAG kids in terms of TAG v. Special Ed, and I strongly believe such a comparative portrayal is inaccurate.

  16. David,
    It’s not TAG pitted against special ed, one to the exclusion of the other. Rather, it is the same principle at stake, the commonality of their position. I say this as someone who worked for four summers as a counselor at a camp for children with Down’s syndrome and for two at a camp for physically disabled children as well as being the parent of TAG kids.
    Perhaps it is the way you view the world, but it’s not the way I do.

  17. I like the way Janet just phrased the arguement. It’s all about access and not about any specific group of students.

  18. I am playing devil’s advocate, but I think there is other ways of looking at this new policy.
    1) Kids who would take courses (paying out of their own pocket) could do courses in 1/2 the amount of time at MATC, Edgewood College, or UW as the student taking them at the high school. This could result in a student taking all of their math courses at MATC within 1 year (and a summer) then have MMSD pay for 3 years of college math courses.
    2) There have been a number of students who have either gotten a degree from MATC or close to finishing their degree at MATC by having their school district pay for the courses.
    3) Kids could take courses through summer programs where they spend 3 dedicated weeks to a specific class which would take a year at the high school. This allows the child to either take 2 other college courses or 1 high school credit during the school year.
    The big problem with this, is fairness. Is it fair that one family who knows how to “play the system” is allowed to move ahead, where another family who isn’t in the know doesn’t. To be honest, this is an equity situation.
    Yes, there are times where a student who learns easily could do a college level course, or a summer program course, where it will take another the full year to learn all the concepts.
    The district is usually pretty good at working with families where a student has a long term illness or disabilities by having staff working with the hospitals and staff that will go to homes to work with kids there if needed.
    In my view, this could hurt a student who is at risk, and behind in credits. I have no idea how many kids are willing to stay in high school for 5 years in order to graduate. It will also affect those who would choose taking a college course due to convenience (whether location, time the course is offered, etc) vs. trying to go cross town to take the course where the only high school offering the course is across town. This could be a foreign language, a science course, aviation, agriculture, engineering or an art course.
    If your child is thinking of a degree in agriculture, or to go to North Dakota for aviation, wouldn’t you want your child to have some experience in a program in high school before sending them out of state for a degree they don’t have any experience in? If you live on the west side of town, your kid could spend 3 periods including driving to and from the east side of town in order to take one course. If they don’t have the experience in say aviation in high school, they go to college for years taking general studies to only find out that when the start taking aviation in college in an out of state school, only to decide that after a course, hi doesn’t like it.
    In my view, schools today don’t allow kids to explore their interests. They have so many required courses, their isn’t much time to explore what they may be good at. Kids are not given enough opportunities to explore their interests. Kids have to pick a foreign language, and for many not able to explore the different languages, their are no longer survey courses (where they get to spend 6 weeks or even a quarter trying different classes in tech ed, business, FACE etc.) How can kids really decide what they really think they want to do the rest of their lives without a taste of what it entails?

  19. In response to edukation4U:
    1. Due to a recently enacted State law, school districts are now only required to pay for at most 18 college credits, i.e., ~ 1 semester equivalent, of courses a student takes via the Youth Options Program. With most college freshman- and sophomore-level courses being 4 or 5 credits, this limit is reached after 3 or 4 courses. Thus, students desiring more courses now have to pay the additional tuition bill themselves.
    2. To try to create equity, the MMSD and WCATY provide some need-based financial aid to help enable all qualified students to take WCATY-sponsored courses regardless of ability to pay the fees. Should the MMSD be spending some of its limited $s in this way if it is now going to deny credit for courses taken via WCATY?
    3. The inequity lies in the fact that students don’t have equal access to all of the courses offered by the MMSD. For example, it really isn’t logistically feasible for a Madison West or Memorial student to get over to LaFollette HS to take a course only offered at LaFollette. To now say that the student can’t take a comparable course for credit at UW which they can access in a timely manner is what is inequitable.
    4. The District does an excellent job of helping students with disabilities who have an IEP (Individual Educational Plan) on file. Federal law requires them to do so. Unfortunately, the bureaucracy and paperwork necessary to obtain an IEP is huge, frequently taking 6-12 months to complete. In the interim, students could be failing their high school courses. In reality, many families never request or complete the paperwork for an IEP for their student because they lack the time or know how to do so or hope their student will be better before the paperwork could be processed. For example, a student with depression or infectious mononucleosis for 1-3 months could easily end up flunking most or all of their courses for a semester due to failure to complete the required work in a timely manner. They would probably not have an IEP in place. They might desire to make up the missed semester by taking non-MMSD correspondence and fast-paced summer school courses so they could catch up and graduate with their age peers. Will they no longer be permitted to get credit for such courses?

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