Louisiana’s education establishment may not like the competition, but students will enjoy more options than ever before
Due to recent court rulings regarding the Minimum Foundation Program (MFP) funding, one of Louisiana’s most innovative educational programs, Course Choice, is facing an uncertain future. But policymakers should support this program, as it will expand opportunity for students across the state.
Course Choice allows students to enroll in additional courses, primarily ones not offered at their current school site. In terms of innovation and implementation, Course Choice has significant advantages over other reform initiatives in that it does not require the creation of new schools or transportation costs to districts. Students in any school district can participate, even those in rural districts that lack local educational programs or options. Furthermore, these courses, which may normally entail significant expenses, are offered at a relatively low cost.
A Remarkable Range of Educational Options
Given the wealth of options, Course Choice has the potential to deeply impact student achievement at all grade levels, as well as provide for the career and college readiness of our student population. These courses, many of which are offered online, tend to fall into three distinct categories: career training, advanced academic or college courses, and test preparation.
All of these aforementioned categories have a wide variety of local, state, and nationally based course providers. For example, the Acadian Ambulance Service offers EMT and First Responder classes. In addition, certifications are offered through the Associated Builders and Contractors, who provide 16 different industry-based classes such as Welding, Instrumentation, and Carpentry. Louisiana State University and various other Louisiana community colleges and universities are offering college courses such as College Algebra and Latin. These offerings are also available for younger audiences as national companies such as Sylvan, Princeton Review, and Apex Learning provide courses in test preparation and foundational skills at all grade levels.
Course Choice is also an avenue by which many school districts have found an opportunity for restructuring or expanding their academic offerings. Bossier, Caddo, and St. James Parish school districts are participating as course providers. By participating in Course Choice, these districts are able to offer their successful career and college coursework to students outside of their districts. Thus, Louisiana now has the opportunity for high-performing districts to share their curriculum and teachers with high-need districts. For example, the AP courses provided by the Louisiana School for the Math, Science, and Arts or the technical courses provided by the St. James Parish School District can be offered to students in a computer lab, library, or personal computer in one of Louisiana’s rural school districts. This statewide systematic sharing of resources can only happen through Course Choice.
Course Choice also has the potential to go beyond the traditional public school system in Louisiana. Already, home-schooled students and students attending private schools are able, at their own expense, to participate in courses. This provision allows public school districts to competitively market themselves and their course offerings to potential students. Furthermore, since the majority of course providers are from Louisiana, it also allows the state to market Louisiana-based courses to other states. With today’s rapidly developing educational technology, Course Choice may be the means by which Louisiana competes in a developing national market of educational service providers.
School districts, training centers, non-profits, universities, and educational service providers are not the only entities eligible to participate as Course Choice providers. Teachers with expertise in online learning management systems, such as Moodle or Blackboard, can also serve as Course Choice providers. This allows current teachers to share their own courses with students from other districts, and may also serve as an opportunity for retired teachers.
Judging by the immense variety in course offerings and course providers the advantage of Course Choice is clear: every child, regardless of location, can participate in courses and access resources that were previously only offered at select training centers, universities, or tutoring centers. Furthermore, the Course Choice providers represent companies, associations, educational institutions, and nonprofits that are highly committed to Louisiana students. Since so many Louisiana students attend schools with limited course offerings, this program represents a true opportunity for our state.
Attacked by Education Monopolists
However, as with any innovation, Course Choice has come under attack. Opponents of Course Choice accuse the program of opening up the MFP to exploitation by profiteering national companies.The opponents of education reform are engaging in an aggressive disinformation campaign designed to confuse the public. Recent newspaper articles and blog postings misrepresent the course choice enrollment process and make false accusations against some course providers. Even so, these attacks do not diminish the merits of Course Choice, the potential of the program, or its offerings to students.
Often overlooked is the fact that Course Choice providers are not responsible for enrolling students into their course. While a Course Choice provider is free to market and inform students of their course options, school guidance counselors are responsible for enrolling eligible students into courses and informing these students of their course selections. The local school gives the final validation and permission for a student to enroll in a course. Furthermore, these attacks misrepresent the manner in which course providers are monitored and compensated for their work. Course Choice providers are only able to receive 50% of the tuition once students have started to actively participate in the course, must report student progress bi-monthly, and are only paid the remaining 50% after students complete the course.
In order to assist schools with the process of enrollment, the Louisiana Department Of Education has set up a robust assistance center on the Course Choice website. With more support and interest from school districts, incidents of miscommunication at the school level will become less frequent. Course Choice providers should not be viewed with suspicion because of misleading claims.
Furthermore, all Course Choice providers are selected through an internal review process by the Louisiana Department of Education and an external review process consisting of a panel of veteran educators. In addition, some Course Choice providers such as FastPath Learning or PrepWorks withhold 25% of the course costs until a student exceeds has a greater academic growth than the local district average. This is an excellent example of innovation in the educational marketplace, a literal money-back guarantee for student results. When course providers are competing for results, it is Louisiana families that profit both financially and academically.
A fully funded Course Choice program in Louisiana would allow students to take courses tailored towards their needs, regardless of their location. Given the success of initiatives in other states, such as the Florida Virtual School, which now serves over a hundred thousand students, Course Choice has the potential to revolutionize Louisiana’s education system. However, the full potential of Course Choice can only be achieved with proper financial support, and its future is in the hands of our state legislators, the Board of Elementary and Secondary Education (BESE), and the Louisiana Department of Education. These public servants should remain committed to funding this innovative program and propelling Louisiana and its students into the 21st century.