COLUMBIA — A new law allows South Carolina’s virtual education program to expand opportunities for middle- and high-school students statewide while saving districts money, its director said Wednesday.

The law signed by Gov. Nikki Haley last month, following unanimous votes in the House and Senate, removed the program’s caps. Students had been limited to three credit hours yearly and 12 total toward a high school diploma.

“Now they’re freed up to take additional courses,” said Bradley Mitchell, the agency’s virtual education director. “It frees them up to take elective courses or different courses they may not be able to get through their high school.”

The program was created in 2006-07 as a way to help students who have fallen behind to graduate and to increase access for students in rural schools. But while the increasingly popular program offered advanced courses, its primary focus has been credit recovery, giving students who failed a course needed for a diploma another chance to pass.

Last school year, the program served nearly 12,500 students in eighth through 12th grades — more than doubling in five years — and 93 percent of those passed with at least a D, according to the state agency.

Mitchell briefed the state Education Board’s innovation subcommittee about the program Wednesday.

“I’m all for it,” said board member Michael Brenan. “We need a variety of ways to reach our students if we’re serious about educating them and getting them career-ready and college-ready.”

Changes in the coming school year include more middle school offerings, additional honors-level high school courses, and increased partnerships with school districts.

Schools facing difficulties hiring certified teachers can offer courses in a “blended” setting, with students being taught online while sitting at a desk in their traditional school. Schools can pay the agency $3,500 for an entire classroom to take a virtual course — far less than the cost of a teacher. The agency added that option last year and expects such arrangements to increase, especially for advanced and elective courses not economically feasible for rural schools to offer.

“Looking at hard-to-staff schools and hard-to-staff subject areas, with the caps gone, we have a program that really can be tailored to the needs of every school district,” said agency spokesman Jay Ragley.

This fall, districts will also be able to “franchise” — offer online classes taught by district teachers with software and curriculum purchased from the state — enabling them to align online courses with their own school-year calendars. The fees for the pilot are not yet set, Ragley said.

The program is also extending into the elementary grades in 2013-14. About 10,000 third- through sixth-graders are expected to take an online keyboarding class.

“As the state moves more to online testing, there’s a need for schools to have keyboarding at the lower grades, but districts can’t provide teachers for that,” Mitchell said.

State law still bars students from earning a diploma through the program, which is available to public school, private school and home-schooled students on a first-come, first-served basis.