South Dakota officials are now grappling with some of the same questions regarding the funding of virtual instruction that have challenged lawmakers in other states.

The demand for high school courses through the eLearning center at Northern State University (NSU) has some South Dakota legislators wondering if the program is growing too quickly. State lawmakers also question how long NSU can offer the courses without charge to high school students on a first-come, first served basis–effectively squeezing out competition from other virtual schooling programs.

The issues came up when the state Legislature earlier this year approved two additional staff positions and another studio for NSU’s Center for Statewide eLearning. The center provides classes to high school students over the internet and through the state’s Digital Dakota Network. It was created in 2001 at the urging of then-Gov. Bill Janklow, who insisted that the classes be offered free to schools.

Sen. Bill Earley, R-Sioux Falls, said the program is important, but he wonders whether the policy of not charging participating schools can last.

“We say there’s no charge. We all know as government grows, the costs do, too,” Earley said. “The question is, how far can the Board of Regents go in providing these K-12 courses out of [its] own budget? It’s going to be difficult to keep it up without charging at some point.”

NSU has delivered classes to 624 students in 69 school districts this year, center director Erika Tallman has said. The cost was $536,000, an average of about $850 per student. She said school districts typically pay $400 to $600 a year per student for similar courses from other sources.

In recent years, groups of schools have combined to share, trade, or buy and sell courses through distance learning. One group, the Digital Interactive Academic Link, or DIAL, pays teachers to use distance learning to deliver courses to members.

John Heemstra, an official with DIAL, says NSU’s program can be tough competition. “We can’t compete with free,” Heemstra said. “The state is in effect creating its own virtual school and is providing courses for some school districts.”