Louisiana’s Education Department is soliciting ideas from nontraditional places, seeking to offer students new academic courses, skills training and work-based apprenticeships outside of their public school classrooms.
The expanded course choices will begin in 2013, after state education leaders choose among applications that have poured in from contracting groups, online course providers and colleges seeking state tax dollars to teach students.
The new “Course Choice” program was created in the massive education revamp pushed by Gov. Bobby Jindal and enacted by lawmakers earlier this year. The expanded course offerings could be available to thousands of students in the 2013-14 school year.
Ken Bradford, an assistant state superintendent with the Department of Education, said Louisiana is the first state in the nation to offer this type of program, in which public school students can pick from a catalog of courses in a sort-of-personalized curriculum.
Supporters of the program say it will help students get college credit, advanced placement courses or technical training to better prepare them for life after high school graduation.
Critics say the law has too few protections to ensure the courses are legitimate and that the state isn’t getting ripped off. They are trying to get the law thrown out as unconstitutional.
The law leaves nearly all of the decision-making — including the accountability standards — with the state Board of Elementary and Secondary Education and the state Education Department.
People, companies or colleges interested in getting paid to teach the classes have until mid-October to submit their applications. BESE will decide in December which courses will be offered in the program, after receiving recommendations from Superintendent of Education John White and an outside panel of evaluators.
“Students today are too often limited by what is offered within the walls of their particular schools,” White said in a statement.
“By opening education to a variety of entities proven to prepare students, Course Choice expands options for students and families.”
The Department of Education says it has received more than 30 applications so far.
A Michigan-based online tutoring service has applied to teach English, math, science and social studies classes. A local chapter of Associated Builders and Contractors Inc. has applied to teach carpentry, pipefitting and welding classes. A Shreveport school is seeking to offer courses on urban farming, landscaping and hair care techniques. A Florida online course provider wants to teach advanced placement classes.
Louisiana Public Broadcasting wants to teach classes in French, Spanish, fine arts and environmental science. The state’s university systems have applied together to offer college-level classes to students in high school. A Lafayette teacher is seeking to offer online math courses.
Students enrolled in public schools graded with a C, D or F under the state’s accountability system will be able to choose from any of the classes offered. Students in A and B schools will be able to take courses that aren’t offered at their schools.
“I think it can really help kids who are looking for advanced placement courses that they can’t find if they’re in a rural area. Some kids may just want to take an additional language,” said Barry Erwin, head of the Council for A Better Louisiana, which advocates for education issues. “There is a real potential for kids who want to expand their opportunities beyond what their school offers.”
Tuition rates are a per-class price, based on a percentage of the funding formula payment given to students in public school districts. The price for a class will vary from parish to parish because the funding formula rates differ in school districts.
Traditional public school groups and teacher unions worry the Course Choice program will bleed more public dollars from school systems that have rising costs but haven’t seen increases in state funding for years.
“It’s a money-grab,” said Steve Monaghan, president of the Louisiana Federation of Teachers.
The LFT, another statewide union group and dozens of local school boards have filed a lawsuit against Jindal’s education revamp, including the Course Choice program, claiming its passage was unconstitutional.
Monaghan said the program opens the door to abuse and cronyism, with no control on how much money will be spent, no transparency on how the course providers will be chosen and no promise students will get improved education from the classes.
He noted that providers don’t have to be accredited or certified by any educational agency to be allowed to participate.
“We’re going to find out way, way too late — after children haven’t been educated — that people have ripped off the system and that public education is left as a shell,” Monaghan said.
Supporters of the Course Choice program point to a payment process that withholds half the tuition price until a student successfully completes the course and that cuts the payment if a student doesn’t complete it on schedule.
“The courses will not only be rigorous, but also relevant to the world students will enter when they graduate from high school,” White said.
The first catalog of courses that will be offered in 2013-14 will be published in January, with online registration starting two months later.