New school plan advances

A state panel Tuesday endorsed a new way to offer classes to public school students even though a district judge struck down the funding mechanism last week.

The plan, called course choice, was approved 8-2 in a committee of the state Board of Elementary and Secondary Education.

The full panel is expected to approve the move on Wednesday, especially since all but one member sat in on Tuesday’s committee meeting.

The program, which stems from a state law enacted earlier this year, will allow private businesses, colleges, public school districts and others to offer students courses for college and careers, apprenticeships and advanced placement classes, as well as traditional offerings.

The item that won approval includes 45 applicants approved by the state Department of Education.

But critics noted that, in a ruling Friday, 19th Judicial District Judge Tim Kelley, of Baton Rouge, ruled that the law would unconstitutionality divert a funding stream for public schools — called the Minimum Foundation Program — in favor of private firms, online companies and others.

The classes would be paid for with public dollars that would otherwise support students in traditional school settings.

Attorneys for the state are appealing the ruling, which also struck down Louisiana’s expanded voucher program.

But BESE member Lottie Beebe, who lives in Breaux Bridge, urged the committee to delay action on the issue because of Kelley’s ruling.

“It is a bit irresponsible on our part to move forward until we are sure we have the blessing of the law,” Beebe said.

State Superintendent of Education John White, whose agency crafted details of the plan, disagreed.

White noted that the court ruling focuses on how the new classes are funded, not the merits of the program itself.

“That was a finding on the mechanics of the funding,” he said.

Other issues that BESE deals with, White said, are routinely predicated on the idea that funds will be found to finance the program.

Stephanie Desselle, who tracks public school issues for the Council for a Better Louisiana, agreed.

Desselle said the new approach to offering public school classes is a reflection of changing technology in education.

“You should seize the moment,” she said. “Funding is something we can talk about later.”

The department plans to publish a catalog of classes in January.

Enrollment begins in March for the 2013-14 school year.

Mary-Patricia Wray, legislative and political director for the Louisiana Federation of Teachers, told the committee it was “utterly ridiculous” for backers to say that the law required action on the plan now, especially in light of Kelley’s ruling.

Applicants that won approval include a handful of school districts, the University of New Orleans and a variety of online companies.

The list includes 20 virtual courses, 13 face-to-face classes and 12 that combine both.

The lone “no” votes on plans to proceed were cast by Beebe and Carolyn Hill, of Baton Rouge.

Jim Garvey, of Metairie, did not attend the meeting.