State rethinks Course Choice

One of Louisiana’s newest education initiatives is sparking criticism and scrutiny from state legislators and others, including complaints that one firm offered students free tablets if they enrolled.

The program, called Course Choice, is part of Gov. Bobby Jindal’s 2012 education overhaul.

State Superintendent of Education John White and other backers say that by allowing private firms and colleges to offer courses, students can catch up with their peers, take classes not offered in their schools or earn college credit.

But the new push, which already faced funding questions, has also sparked an unusual legislative resolution.

That measure, House Concurrent Resolution 153, ordered the state Board of Elementary and Secondary Education to file a report with legislators by Sept. 30 on a several issues, including how students were enrolled.

Several state legislators and superintendents said FastPath Learning, which accounted for 88 percent of the state’s initial enrollees, blanketed neighborhoods and apartment complexes offering students free tablet computers if they signed up for Course Choice.

State Rep. Patrick Jefferson, D-Arcadia, vice chairman of the House Education Committee and chief sponsor of the resolution, said it was prompted in part by reports that children in his area were being approached about the courses, which alarmed parents.

“It was my understanding that if the kids signed up, they promised them computers,” Jefferson said.

State Rep. Gene Reynolds, D-Dubberly, whose House district included more than 20 percent of initial enrollees, criticized FastPath’s earlier enrollment methods.

“They were offering incentives like devices to do the courses and they were signing them up and they never really contacted the schools,” Reynolds said.

“And these people would just sign up, whether they needed the course or not,” he said. “They just wanted names. They got paid by names.”

White, while calling Course Choice a huge benefit for students and parents, said steps have been taken to all but eliminate FastPath Learning from being one of the providers.

He said Course Choice has been recast and that the new version, by design, will likely leave FastPath on the sidelines.

“In actuality, we have changed our strategy that intentionally reduces the role of FastPath and similar groups,” White said.

Officials of FastPath Learning declined several requests for interviews.

A list of providers released Thursday by the state Department of Education showed that, of 300 pending requests, none is for FastPath.

The new program has been in flux for weeks.

White announced on May 24 that, because of a state Supreme Court ruling, Course Choice would be scaled back to a pilot project for the 2013-14 school year.

At that point, 870 students were approved for the programs, with FastPath Learning accounting for 767 of the students, including 674 in grades three to eight, according to figures provided by the state Department of Education.

A second round of signups is underway, but this time, the emphasis is on high school students.

The classes are paid for by the state for students in public schools rated C, D and F by the state.

The average cost of one course is $700, officials said.

Providers are supposed to be paid half the costs initially and the other half if the student finishes the course on time, and slightly less if he does not.

But how companies go about rounding up students is a key part of Jefferson’s resolution.

The legislation, which is an expression of sentiment, not a law, says “there are school system officials, principals, parents and students who have publicly expressed concerns about a perceived lack of sufficient oversight relative to the enrollment of students by some course providers.”

One is Claiborne Parish School District Superintendent Janice Williams, who said she was especially bothered that elementary children were approached.

“There were children who were enrolled in Course Choice in our parish unbeknownst to the parents,” Williams said. “They were livid.”

Williams said she tried to contact officials at FastPath without success.

White said he thought any tablet computers offered were being loaned, which he said would be no different than a school system.

“If it wasn’t a loan, it was categorically wrong and we will not tolerate it,” he said.

White also said that, in some cases, local school district officials are unfairly denying students access to Course Choice options.

Students in the East Baton Rouge Parish School District accounted for more than one-third of initial enrollees but the district’s rejection rate was 50 percent, according to figures provided by the state Department of Education.

The state’s latest plan calls for spending about $2 million on a Course Choice pilot project, which White said should cover about 2,000 or 3,000 students.

How to pay for the program is still up in the air.

On Tuesday, the state’s top School Board will consider whether to use funds from a federal settlement, which government insiders call 8g money.