Wading into a coast-to-coast debate, state Superintendent of Education John White hopes to nationalize a Louisiana education program that has sparked a lawsuit and other controversy.
The program, dubbed “course choice,” was part of Gov. Bobby Jindal’s 2012 public schools overhaul. It was touted as a way for students to be able to take hard-to-find courses not offered at their schools through nontraditional routes, including private firms.
But the law has sparked multiple controversies, including complaints that one firm offered free tablet computers if students enrolled.
In another case, three state education leaders questioned the background of a firm that wanted to offer online classes.
And the Louisiana Supreme Court in 2013 struck down the original funding method, which paved the way for an overhaul of the initial plan.
However, up to 40,000 students are expected to enroll in the classes this fall — mostly high school students earning college credit — and White said something similar to Louisiana’s law needs to be in the new federal education law under debate in Congress.
That legislation, which covers federal test requirements, aid for troubled schools and the role of the U.S. government in education, is a revamp of the 2001 No Child Left Behind law.
The U.S. Senate approved its version of the plan 81-17 on Thursday. The House passed its own proposal earlier this month.
Talks to produce a compromise bill are expected to go on this fall, and White hopes a small national group he heads — Chiefs for Change — can get some kind of course choice inserted in the final version.
“Nationwide, the number of schools that are not providing basic science courses, basic math courses, career education, is really surprisingly high,” White said.
One-third of U.S. high schools offer chemistry. About half offer calculus, and fewer than two-thirds offer physics, advocates of course choice say.
“This is an issue of equity,” White said. “This is an issue of access.”
Chiefs for Change, which includes 10 state and local education leaders, calls itself an advocacy group for modernizing public schools.
The group is touting Louisiana’s course choice law as a success story that Congress should replicate nationally. It cites a tenfold increase in course enrollment during the 2014-15 school year over the previous year.
Since the new options were added, the group says, the number of African-American students enrolling in Louisiana high school classes for college credit rose by 137 percent.
The number of public high school students enrolling in college directly after high school is up by 16 percent.
“That is really a credit to the school boards and superintendents,” White said of the surge in enrollment. “They worked with the business community to expand that system.”
Scott Richard, executive director of the Louisiana School Boards Association, said course choice in Louisiana did not take off until after the original Jindal/White plan underwent major changes.
“You can’t just open the gates to private vendors coming in and offering course work,” Richard said. “We saw how that played out.”
Richard noted that, in 2013, a firm called FastPath Learning, which accounted for 88 percent of the state’s initial enrollees, blanketed neighborhoods and apartment complexes with offers of free tablet computers if students enrolled in course choice.
That sparked criticism from state lawmakers and others.
The same year, the state Supreme Court ruled the courses could not be financed from the state fund that underwrites aid for traditional public school students — the Minimum Foundation Program. That ruling forced officials to recast the program and put caps on enrollment for a time.
Richard said a 2014 state law by Sen. Dan Morrish, R-Jennings and Rep. John Bel Edwards, D-Amite, revamped course choice to give local education officials a bigger say.
“Local school systems have the final authority on whether or not course choice is appropriate,” Richard said.
“Without a doubt, dual enrollment courses are what the parents value and what the school systems value,” he said.
Edwards, who is running for governor and has said he wants White replaced as education chief, said the superintendent’s original version of course choice was flawed.
“The local districts ultimately have to be in control,” Edwards said.
Senate Education Committee Chairman Conrad Appel, R-Metairie, who sponsored the 2012 legislation that included course choice, said taking the plan national is a good idea —- provided there are controls to prevent the politically connected from offering questionable courses.
“It is like anything else. You have to monitor it,” Appel said.
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