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BOISE -- Idaho is a step closer to joining the handful of states that require students to take online courses.

The state Board of Education gave initial approval Friday to a rule requiring high school students to take at least two credits online to graduate, despite heavy opposition to the plan at public hearings across Idaho this summer.

Schools nationwide offer online 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 in Washington, D.C. Proponents say online classes will help save money and help prepare students for college, where many courses are online. Opponents say they replace teachers with computers.

The online rules vary from state to state. Idaho would be the first to require two credits online.

Idaho's education board drafted the online course requirements as part of new education changes that were signed into law earlier this year with backing from public schools chief Tom Luna and Gov. C.L. Butch Otter. Luna wanted students to take up to eight online course credits, but that provision was ditched during the 2011 session of the Idaho Legislature amid opposition from parents, teachers and some lawmakers.

An effort to require students to take four online credits was also ditched.

The legislation that was approved and signed into law instead directed the state Board of Education to draft standards governing the online course requirements. The board directed a subcommittee to decide how trustees would proceed in April and that panel mostly discussed making one or two online credits a requirement to graduate high school.

Most of the opposition was directed at the education changes as a whole not just the online requirements, board spokesman Mark Browning said.

Luna, who sits on the board, lauded trustees for their work on the rule that was approved Friday.

I think that this proposal before us goes a long ways toward our responsibility as a board and as a state to assure that our students have the ability and the necessary skills that they will need when they graduate from high school, Luna said Friday before the board voted 8-0 to approve the plan

The board will now hold a 21-day comment period on the rule, though Browning says trustees are unlikely to reverse their decision. The rule will go before state lawmakers during the 2012 session, which starts in January.

Idaho is also introducing teacher merit pay and shifting money from salaries toward classroom technology, phasing in laptops for teachers and students, as part of Luna's education changes, which also limit union bargaining rights.

The changes were targeted in a referendum campaign earlier this year and will go before Idaho voters in November 2012.

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