Louisiana Sets New Course for High School Classes
Louisiana is pioneering a new way to conduct high school classes, and it’s so popular state leaders are scrambling to keep up with demand. In 2012, legislators established the Course Choice program. It’s like a mini-voucher that lets students choose individual classes outside their schools.
“The goal of the Course Choice pilot program is to expand students’ access to a wide variety of courses and develop courses that are tied to postsecondary success directly,” explains Barry Landry, a spokesman for the Louisiana Department of Education, “Louisiana is the first state in the nation to implement such a system.”
In 2013, Florida’s legislature considered a similar program. That bill’s author promises he’ll revive the idea in 2014.
Course Choice adds a variety of options, including workplace-based apprenticeships, typically unavailable through many high schools. Originally, the program was to start with 2,000 students, but so many applied to use Course Choice nearly 3,000 now have joined the program, and state Superintendent John White is trying to squeeze money from other budgets to let them in. He already did that to create the program’s registration website. The average course costs $700 to $1,000 per student.
“This is a very important step to a larger school choice system. It increases the range of options exponentially, and it has something to offer to a very broad and diverse range of students,” said Kevin Kane, president of the Pelican Institute, a state-based free-market think tank.
Originally, the state’s general education fund, the Minimum Foundation Program (MFP), funded Course Choice. The state Supreme Court ruled that unconstitutional, shrinking the program back to a pilot with funding through a block grant.
“The funding mechanism used is unconstitutional,” said Les Landon, spokesman for the Louisiana Federation of Teachers. The LFT, the Louisiana Association of Educators, and the Louisiana School Boards Association sued Course Choice and the state’s expansive voucher program. In May the Court ruled, “once funds are dedicated to the state’s Minimum Foundation Program for public education, the constitution prohibits those funds from being expended on the tuition costs of nonpublic schools and nonpublic entities.”
This means the state must independently fund the choice programs each year instead of guaranteeing regular funding for them like that allocated for public schools, Kane said, “[It’s] not a battle you want to fight every year in the legislature.”
Varied Class Menu
Available courses fall into three categories: career training, advanced academic or college courses, and test preparation. Providers include Associated Builders and Contractors, who offer certification in subjects such as welding and carpentry; Acadian Ambulance Service offers EMT and First Responder classes; Louisiana State University and various community colleges offer College Algebra, literature, and Latin; and traditional high school courses such as algebra and chemistry are available online through mSchool and K12.
After 90 organizations applied to offer courses through the program, Louisiana’s Department of Education originally approved 41 courses for the program, but only 21 can participate for 2013-14 because of the limited funds, Landry said.
Hedge Fund Villains
School counselors must approve each student request to enroll. Though the court ruling cut the program, opponents are still wary of the idea.
“Teachers are concerned that anything that drains resources away are hurting our schools—basically it’s a way to fund hedge fund managers,” said Landon. “We think that it is an unnecessary distraction from necessary education programs and it is very poorly put together.”
“Of course in any program you will find bad actors, so such scenarios may play out from time to time,” Kane said. “But the concept is sound, and most people who learn of it find much to applaud.”
Course providers are paid in part when students begin their classes and receive the remainder when students complete them. Kane noted the reform idea doesn’t require creating new schools or increasing transportation costs.
“Student demand for these courses has a reached a point where it cannot be ignored,” Landry said. “We are going to have to make some sacrifices to make sure these students receive courses they need to be prepared for college or career.”
Image by U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.