A new Louisiana program that allows students to shop for publicly funded high school courses is getting started after hitting a roadblock this spring when its original funding mechanism was deemed to violate the state constitution.
The initiative, now supported with some $3 million in state aid, is enabling several thousand students to select from a broad swath of courses—whether online, face-to-face, or blended—supplied by a mix of public and private providers. The most popular offerings include Spanish and French, algebra, biology, and ACT preparation, according to the state education department.
As of Aug. 21, more than 3,700 students across Louisiana had requested enrollment in about 90 courses offered by 28 providers for the new school year, with the final deadline for open-enrollment ending this week, a spokesman for the state agency said.
Experts say the statewide program appears to be unique, even as it combines elements of some existing approaches, such as virtual and charter schools and voucher programs. (“Louisiana Opens Novel Marketplace of K-12 Courses,” Sept. 12, 2012.)
Among the state-approved providers to attract significant numbers of applicants so far are the Louisiana School for Math, Sciences, and the Arts; Princeton Review; SmartStart Virtual Academy; and Bard Early College in New Orleans, a high school program operated by Bard College in New York. Others on the approved list include community colleges, the Florida Virtual School, Louisiana Public Broadcasting, and two school districts.
“It’s a complex program, and it’s been lost in the media [coverage] sometimes that it is not a virtual school, not an online education program, not a MOOC,” said state schools Superintendent John White in an interview. “It is a much more diverse platform through which providers of a wide variety can create courses and avail students who have a wide variety of needs.”
He adds, “The promise of Course Choice is it’s scalable reform, scalable choice.”
But the pilot program has drawn considerable criticism, with opponents arguing it’s a misguided experiment that’s an inappropriate use of public dollars and that it lacks adequate safeguards to ensure program quality.
“This is much more about advancing Milton Friedmanesque policy than about sound education policy,” said Steve Monaghan, the president of the Louisiana Federation of Teachers, referring to the free-market economist who promoted private-school vouchers. The union was a party to the lawsuit that successfully challenged the original funding source.
“If we were to put this kind of energy as a state into public education, into funding our schools, early-childhood education,” Mr. Monaghan said, “we’d be in a lot better place than we are now.”
Mr. Monaghan and others also lament that at the same time the state is launching the new program, it has shut down the Louisiana Virtual School, a statewide program that allowed students to take online courses at a cost of $150 per student, per class.
But Mr. White said Course Choice has the same types of offerings as the Louisiana Virtual School, and then some.
“It isn’t killing it,” he said of the Louisiana Virtual School. “It’s just significantly expanding on it and doing a hundred other things,” he said. “Everything it does, Course Choice does, and more.”
The program was established under legislation passed last year. The same measure also expanded statewide a private-school-voucher program. In May, the state supreme court ruled that the funding source was not permissible under state law because it diverted aid intended for public schools.
Twenty-eight public and private organizations that won state approval under Louisiana’s Course Choice program had received requests for student enrollment as of last week, from community colleges to private online companies and local school districts.
• Bard Early College of New Orleans
• Bossier Parish Community College
• Florida Virtual School
• K12 Inc.
• Louisiana School for Math, Science, and the Arts
• Louisiana Public Broadcasting
• Pelican Chapter, Associated Builders and Contractors
• Princeton Review
• Rocket Learning Partners, LLC.
• SmartStart Virtual Academy
• St. James Parish School District
Source: Louisiana Department of Education
As conceived, Course Choice was to be financed with a portion of school districts’ combined state and local aid under the Louisiana Minimum Foundation Program.
After the ruling, $2 million was tapped from a special state fund drawn from a settlement with oil companies. When that was insufficient to meet all the student demand, the state agency said it would provide $1 million more by discontinuing a statewide test for 2nd graders and trimming “travel and overhead expenses.”
“We have cast this year as a pilot, and we will be seeking more sustainable funding in the future,” Superintendent White said.
The average cost to the state for an individual student to take a course is projected to be $800, according to the state education department.
Under the program, state aid will cover course fees (with some limits) for any student attending a public high school rated C, D, or F under the state accountability system. Students in A or B schools may be eligible if their school does not offer a course equivalent to one approved by the state.
Stephen B. Tremaine, the director of Bard Early College in New Orleans, said the classes his school is offering under the state program are face-to-face seminars for juniors and seniors on intellectual history.
“Each semester seminar has a question, and students will read across intellectual history,” he said. One topic is, “What does it mean to be human?”
The seminars will help students build “the habits of inquiry and habits of mind ... to help them succeed at the highest levels of higher education,” he said.
Students will come to the New Orleans campus from 1 p.m. to 3 p.m. each weekday. The courses are limited to New Orleans students, but the school provides free transportation.
Patrick R. Widhalm, the executive director of the Louisiana School for Math, Science, and the Arts, a state-supported residential high school in Natchitoches, said his institution has long been engaged in offering distance learning. The school, which previously partnered with the state education department to operate the Louisiana Virtual School, is offering 15 online classes through Course Choice, including several Spanish courses, as well as Advanced Placement psychology, calculus, and computer science, Mr. Widhalm said.
In fact, some of the same teachers who taught in the Louisiana Virtual School will teach through the new program, he said.
One question raised about Course Choice is the state’s ability to ensure quality across so many courses and providers.
Mr. White said the state is making that a high priority.
“This is the greatest level of accountability that we or any state has ever placed at the course level,” he said. “We are daily monitoring providers, will provide an annual review, and we will be very vigilant about recommending any providers exit from the initiative if they don’t fulfill their mission.”
He also said providers went through a rigorous vetting process upfront, akin to how the state authorizes charter schools.
Darrell J. Fairburn, the superintendent of the 5,500-student Washington district, about 80 miles north of New Orleans, saidearly last week that 161 students from his schools had enrolled in Course Choice. The majority will take Spanish 1 and 2, he said, since his district only has one Spanish teacher.
Mr. Fairburn said he’s sorry to see the Louisiana Virtual School go, but on the upside, Course Choice won’t cost his district a penny, at least for now.
“Louisiana Virtual School was really good,” he said. “You start new, you worry about the quality. Hopefully, those people who have accepted the providers know the quality and will monitor that.”
Brigitte T. Nieland, a vice president at the Louisiana Association of Business and Industry, said she’s confident the state will be a strong accountability watchguard.
She sees the program as a welcome addition to the state’s educational choice offerings.
“Not only can it help children do everything from act prep to high-level math and languages, but also [develop] very technical-oriented skills leading toward industry-based certifications,” she said.
Ms. Nieland wants it to catch on. “I hope it becomes so popular that we find a way to sustain it and grow it.”
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A version of this article appeared in the August 28, 2013 edition of Education Week as ‘Course Choice’ Venture Gets Started in Louisiana