A new type of private school serving public school students at taxpayer expense was created by Act 2 of 2012. These new private schools will offer “Choice Courses”, a major component of Jindal's attack on our public schools. Choice course providers will be able to recruit students and a portion of their MFP allocation starting with the 2013-14 school year. All students attending public schools rated “C” or below (more than half of public schools) will be targets of these new choice providers. There is also a provision in the law that allows students from B or A schools to take choice courses and raid the MFP funding if such courses are not offered by their home schools. Proposals are now being received by the State Department of Education for choice courses for the 2013-14 school year. BESE will have the authority to approve any courses by private providers that meet state requirements by January 1, 2013. The state will then publish a list of approved choice course providers and the courses they will offer so that students can sign up for the 2013-14 school year.
What type of organizations are expected to be choice course providers? Colleges may offer college credit courses, business organizations may offer technical and vocational courses, large national based for-profit virtual course providers such as Connections Academy and K12 may offer any subject at any grade level in the state approved curriculum, and individual entrepreneurs or teachers may also offer either virtual or on-site courses.
These course providers will operate in direct competition with local school systems but the playing field in this competition will not be a level field. The tuition charged by these choice course providers comes directly from the MFP funding normally allocated to the school district where the student lives. But since choice providers are private, they are not required to use any particular portion of the MFP for actual instruction. Choice course providers can use media advertising to lure students away from public schools and charge the cost to us, the taxpayers. They can capture public school students for all but one hour of instruction each day and there is absolutely nothing local school boards can do about it. In fact school officials are prohibited by law from discouraging students from taking choice courses.
The tuition charged can be up to 90% of the pro-rated MFP allocation for a course even though a choice provider may have a fraction of the state mandated overhead costs of public schools. In the question and answer section of the State Department web page for choice courses, the Department predicts that somehow competition will create a “market price” for choice courses. We don't know if that means that BESE will approve only the lowest cost providers for particular categories of courses or if many different fee proposals will be approved for the same courses. As far as the students and their parents are concerned, there is no incentive for choosing the lower cost courses because all such courses are free (if the student comes from a “C” or below rated school or if the course is not offered in his/her “B” or “A” school). This course approval process by BESE is sure to be controversial and may result in court challenges.
According to the law these course providers, once approved by BESE, may offer choice courses for up to 3 years. The law provides for an evaluation of Choice Course Providers after 2 years, and allows a course provider to be put on probation for their third year based on performance of students taking their courses. After 3 years each provider may be terminated or renewed for at least 3 more years. This process means that many students may be allowed to participate in these unregulated schools possibly providing sub-standard services for at least 3 years before anything is done.
Choice course providers can pay their administrators any salary they choose using our tax money, allocate any amount they choose to their owners or stockholders and use any pupil teacher ratio they choose. Their teachers will not be evaluated as is required by state law because they are private schools. At this point, there are no plans for the state to monitor whether or not students attend regularly as required in public schools. As far as I know there are no plans by the state to check to see if students are spending the number of required minutes each day on each course, and no one will know if the required GLE's or common core standards are being covered. Choice schools will receive 50% of their fees at the time of student enrollment. At this point there is no regulation to cover what happens if a student is expelled from a choice provider course or what happens to the initial 50% payment made by the state to the choice provider if the student drops out or is expelled by the choice provider. It looks like most of the “choice” will be in the hands of the choice course providers.
But here's the most disturbing part of the rules for choice courses. All students participating in the course choice program will be tested by LEAP or its successor tests at their original home public schools. Their scores made on LEAP and other high stakes tests will be assigned to their home schools even if the majority of their courses are taken off campus. So the profit for choice courses goes to the providers, but for the first three years at least, the penalties for any under performance will go to their assigned public schools. You could have a “C” rated school that may have its grade reduced to a “D” or worse by the scores of choice students. Or you could have a school that may lose its higher performing students to choice course providers while the lower performing students remain. Some choice course providers may look good because they have carefully skimmed the best performing students from the public schools! We have already seen that some of the voucher schools have ways of discouraging qualified students from enrolling if the school administrators want to cull out certain students.
Another unintended consequence of having courses offered by unregulated providers is grade inflation. There is nothing to keep some of the choice providers from watering down standards and using grade inflation to attract more students to their profit making enterprise. Particularly in cases where the courses offered are not tested by the state, the state may not be in a position to challenge the rigor of such courses. This is very similar to what we see now with many of the virtual schools offering “college level” courses over the Internet. Many graduates of such schools are finding their degrees to be worthless even after they have accumulated huge college loan debts. (see my post of August 5)
Louisiana does have a great need for expansion of career training as opposed to our present policy of attempting to prepare all students for college. This could have easily been done by providing for partnerships between our high schools and our vocational/technical and community colleges. In addition there should be more business and industry related apprenticeship programs. There was no need for a law that could drain the lifeblood out of our public schools.
What Jindal and the Legislature have done is to allow private companies and individual profiteers to experiment with the education of children and collect much of the MFP money with very little oversight. The difference is that even if a student may be under-performing in a public school, at least the public system assures taxpayers that the student is in attendance, that the teacher is being monitored and evaluated, and that the required elements of the curriculum are being taught. With a choice course nothing is guaranteed. The same lack of accountability applies to the new voucher schools. How can we trust that the Department will properly evaluate choice providers based on some of the atrocious voucher schools approved so far? For the voucher and choice schools, over 75 years of legislation designed to protect the education of Louisiana public school students has been thrown away. At the same time, the State Department of education will continue to micromanage our public schools as never before. This is school reform?
Based on my many years in education, I know that this and the other parts of the Jindal plan will not work. In all probability many students will be hurt by this multitude of poorly monitored privatization schemes. Our students should not be the guinea pigs for these untested programs. Please talk to your legislator. There is still time to stop this train before it runs off the tracks and wrecks our education system.