OPI looking to Legislature for $1.5 million in additional funding for MT Digital Academy

The various departments of State Government are ready to line up for their piece of Montana’s nearly $500 million dollar budget surplus. Lawmakers convene the 2013 Legislative Session next Monday. Over the next few months, the Legislature will decide how to spend that surplus, if they want to spend it at all.

A top legislative priority for the office of Public Instruction, increased funding for the Montana Digital Academy.

State Lawmakers created the Montana Digital Academy in 2009.

“Montana Schools have access to a public online course delivery system,” said Superintendent of Public Instruction Denise Juneau. The academy allows students to take courses not currently offered at their school, or to retake a core class they may have failed in order to graduate on time. It allows students in Montana’s most rural areas to choose from a much wider selection of courses then they had previously.

Public school teachers teach the online courses. Superintendent Juneau brings up a friend who teaches a digital academy course in the far Western Montana town of Arlee.

“She reaches students over in Culbertson, over in Wibaux and those types of areas,” she said. Both places are in far eastern Montana.  “But her reach in that course is all across this state.”

The Digital Academy has been considerably more successful than originally expected. Its first trial year in 2009 saw about 500 enrollments, which means 500 courses were taken.

Juneau says in 2012 there were 6800 enrollments from over 3,000 students.

That number of enrollments is expected to top 10-thousand by the start of next school year. 97 percent of Montana high schools offer the classes, up from 67 percent in 2009. Junior High Schools have started joining in.

Superintendent Juneau is looking for $1.5 million in additional funds for the academy. It receives $2.3 million now. She says the money would allow for greater enrollment.

“Billings schools is not even online yet,” she said, “and so once those high schools get involved, we’re gonna see a lot more growth.”

Juneau says she wants to keep the Digital Academy a consistent presence across the Public school system, offered free to students.

“The minute we have to cap enrollment, or have schools pay to have to offer these courses during their school day, it becomes more of a hardship.”

Of her top legislative priorities, Juneau thinks getting extra funding for the Digital Academy has the greatest chance of passing. She calls the academy a success story from the state legislature, one which passed with wide bi-partisan support. She believes an extra $1.5 million is not that much to keep expanding that success.

But there will be a lot of competition for those dollars.

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