Louisiana is gearing up to open a new front in its push to expand educational choice, essentially creating a marketplace that lets students shop around for publicly funded courses—both online and face-to-face—beyond their schoolhouse doors.
More than 30 providers already have stepped forward seeking state approval to take part in the Course Choice program, which opens for business next school year.
Several national experts said the statewide program appears to be unique, even as it blends elements of some existing approaches, from virtual and charter schools to voucher programs.
Billed as offering “a la carte school choice to Louisiana students and families, one course at a time” by the state education department, the program was approved this year as part of a larger education package. Although it’s been largely overshadowed by a companion measure expanding private school vouchers, some observers suggest the ramifications of Course Choice are wider reaching.
“This actually could have far more impact on students, schools, districts, and postsecondary education,” said Leslie R. Jacobs, a former state school board member and the founder of Educate Now!, an advocacy group in New Orleans. “I think this is very innovative. ... The student makes the decision; the district has to pay for it.”
Under the new program, public dollars—in the form of a slice of local districts’ combined state and local aid—will cover course fees (with some limits) for any student attending a public school rated C, D, or F under the state accountability system. Students in an A or B school may be eligible if their school does not offer a course equivalent to one approved by the state.
Theoretically, students could earn most of their credits through alternative providers. Although the program is open throughout K-12, state officials and outside experts say they expect it will be most common at the high school level.
“We don’t know of anything else like it,” David Lefkowith, a deputy superintendent at the Louisiana education department, said of the program. “We’re an air-traffic controller. ... We’re just making sure everybody lands safely, and that it’s a quality ride. We are content and quality control, not curriculum development.”
Organizations that have applied to join Louisiana’s new marketplace include many national online-learning companies, such as Sylvan Learning and Apex Learning, as well as some local entities, including the Pelican chapter of the nonprofit Associated Builders and Contractors, Southern University and Agricultural and Mechanical College in Baton Rouge, and the state-run Louisiana Educational Television Authority.
The initiative, however, is getting mixed reviews. One complaint is the potential financial loss for districts. Also, some skeptics say quality control is a huge concern, and they question whether the state will successfully maintain it.
“There’s little question that, ultimately, education delivery in the United States is going to change in the face of technological innovations and possibilities out there,” said Jeffrey Henig, a professor of political science and education at Teachers College, Columbia University. “But this sounds to me like a ‘jump in with two feet and eyes half closed’ approach to it.”
• All Louisiana students in grades K-12 may participate, but may not qualify for public funding.
• All students attending schools rated C, D, or F under the state accountability system are eligible for public funding.
• Students attending A or B schools may be eligible for public funding if their school does not offer a course deemed equivalent to a Course Choice offering they wish to take.
• 50 percent of state-approved tuition is paid when student starts course. Other half paid upon successful, on-time completion of course.
• Maximum tuition for one course is 90 percent of one-sixth of an LEA’s per-pupil funding under the state’s minimum foundation program.
• Home district will receive a minimum of 25 percent of per-pupil funding for each student.
• Virtually any public or private entity that wins state approval may provide courses, including postsecondary institutions, private schools, school districts, virtual education providers, corporations or industry associations, and educational entrepreneurs (such as a teacher or group of teachers with a “proven track record of success”).
• Priority areas include core courses, college-credit courses, and career and technical education.
• No limit on number of courses a student may take, but publicly funded students must enroll in at least one course in their home school.
Meanwhile, several Louisiana education groups, including the two teachers’ unions, have waged a legal challenge to Course Choice and other key provisions of the new school choice law. They argue that the state lacks the constitutional authority to redirect public funds intended for local districts. A hearing by a state district court is scheduled for next month.
‘Building Accountability In’
The Course Choice program was established under legislation signed in April by Gov. Bobby Jindal, a Republican. The measure also expanded a private-school-voucher program in New Orleans to make it available statewide, with some restrictions, and established new pathways for the creation of charter schools.
The state has spelled out three particular areas for Course Choice classes over the first year: core academic courses, career and technical education, and courses that bear college credit. The types of courses proposed by applicants include math, science, fine arts, foreign languages, Advanced Placement courses, cosmetology, carpentry, and welding, among others.
Mr. Lefkowith said the state will move cautiously into this new sphere: “We’re going to have a bias the first year to do a few things really well.”
In scanning the nation for similar state programs, Mr. Lefkowith said the closest his agency could find was Utah’s Statewide Online Education Program, created in 2011. While the funding mechanism is similar, Utah’s program is more limited in some respects. For instance, it offers only virtual courses, the only eligible providers are other public school districts, and it’s exclusively a high school program.
Chester E. Finn Jr., the president of the Thomas B. Fordham Institute, a Washington think tank, said Louisiana’s new program has echoes of the postsecondary realm.
“It’s analogous to something that’s been going on in higher education for a long time,” he said, “the ability to sort of pull together course credits from a variety of places and get them counted toward your diploma.”
Added Mr. Finn, a longtime proponent of expanding school choice: “This is a bold and promising and interesting experiment, but it’s full of pitfalls.”
The challenges of ensuring course quality should not be underestimated, he said, including decisions on which courses and providers are approved, how they are monitored over time, and how to judge whether student work deserves credit.
“These are not trivial issues,” Mr. Finn said. “The reason that doesn’t throw me into a total tizzy is it’s not as though we’ve been doing a very good job of quality control in regular courses in regular schools. ... And in most cases, the arrangement is for kids who are in schools that are not doing a very good job.”
Kevin G. Welner, an education professor at the University of Colorado at Boulder who has raised concerns about some choice initiatives, said that based on his review of materials about the new program, he sees reason for alarm.
“The approach taken in Louisiana is a very ... deregulated one that has a little bit of a veneer of accountability and vetting,” he said, “but doesn’t seem to have many specifics that could provide assurance that the quality is really going to be there.”
Mr. Henig from Teachers College said he wonders whether the state education agency has adequate capacity to effectively manage the program.
“Whether the state can really provide any kind of serious data collection, analysis, oversight, and ability to intervene when there are bad actors,” he said, “that is a huge leap of faith.”
But Mr. Lefkowith insists that state officials are keenly aware of the need for a robust accountability system and are laying the groundwork for one.
“Believe me, we are building accountability in,” Mr. Lefkowith said. He outlined what he described as six levels of such oversight, from a rigorous vetting process upfront of both the providers and the individual courses they wish to offer (including independent peer review) to regular monitoring and evaluation of programs over time.
Aid Follows Student
Vendors who apply may propose lots of courses, but he said the state may well only approve some of them.
Up to 75 percent of a district’s per-pupil state and local aid under Louisiana’s minimum foundation program could pay for courses. Mr. Lefkowith said that translates into roughly $5,000 to $8,000 per student, depending on the district.
“The challenge for districts will be, if one student leaves any one class, you can’t really change your staffing formula,” said Ms. Jacobs of Educate Now!
But Ms. Jacobs believes the program could serve as a powerful incentive for districts to make their offerings more attractive.
“Over time, what this will do is create competition to provide good coursework to high school students,” she said.
In fact, districts themselves, as well as private schools, are eligible to become providers of classes for students in other districts. Also, the program applies to students in public charter schools, who may enroll in Course Choice programs at public expense.
Steve Monaghan, the president of the Louisiana Federation of Teachers, an affiliate of the American Federation of Teachers, argues that the program will take a financial toll on already strapped districts. The group’s lawsuit focuses on what it calls the inappropriate diversion of public funds under the state’s minimum foundation program.
“We believe that the Louisiana Constitution clearly indicates what these dollars are appropriated to do,” he said.
Mr. Monaghan also argues that the program is vulnerable to foul play. The LFT recently highlighted contributions made by the political action committee for the Pelican chapter of the Associated Builders and Contractors to some state lawmakers who backed the Course Choice legislation, as well as to members of the elected state school board.
Mr. Monaghan suggests that such financial contributions may jeopardize the state’s fairness in evaluating the group’s application.
“ABC gets featured as the poster child .... in a [recent] press release” from the state education department about Course Choice, he said.
The builders’ association is applying to provide a number of courses in such areas as carpentry, pipefitting, and welding.
“It’s about training young people to have a meaningful career in construction,” said Alvin M. Bargas, the president of the Pelican chapter of the ABC.
On the issue of influence, Mr. Bargas said that his organization’s PAC has long supported political candidates, but that such aid was “definitely not intended” to win favor for its application, nor does he expect any special treatment.
Mr. Lefkowith said no favoritism will be forthcoming, but that in any case, the ABC wrote what he called “a terrific application.”
He said: “They have course content ... that is gold standard. Quite frankly, the last thing we have to worry about is ABC scamming the system.”
Richard D. Lavergne, the superintendent of the 8,500-student St. Martin Parish district, near Lafayette, said he sees value in providing more options for students, but worries about the financial toll of Course Choice on school systems.
“It could have a significant effect, especially if students take three or four courses,” he said.
Mr. Lavergne said he wishes the state program had been designed so that course providers work “through districts,” not around them. That said, he’s determined to stay competitive. His district recently launched a virtual school, he said, and is expanding enrollment in a dual-credit program with a community college.
“Obviously, it makes us think that we have to do things different,” he said. “I’m trying to find ways to offer a greater variety of courses to keep students here.”
Coverage of the education industry and K-12 innovation is supported in part by a grant from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.
A version of this article appeared in the September 12, 2012 edition of Education Week as Louisiana Opens Novel Marketplace of K-12 Courses