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La. Approves New Course Providers Despite 'Unconstitutional' Ruling

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Just four days after a judge ruled Louisiana's unprecedented Course Choice program unconstitutional, the state's school board approved 45 course providers to create those classes, even though the court ruling leaves the program without funding.

The board moving forward with the program is yet another smaller conflict within the greater controversy over Louisiana's sweeping education laws passed in April by Gov. Bobby Jindal, most notably a voucher program that allows public students to attend private schools using state funds. On Friday, a Baton Rouge judge ruled that the voucher program and the course choice program violate the state's school funding formula, after a lawsuit brought forth by two parents and backed by the state's teachers union.

But still, state superintendent John White went forward with approving the course providers, and the Board of Elementary and Secondary Education backed the list in an 8-2 vote Tuesday; a final vote is coming today.

If approved by the board, Course Choice will continue, but without any funding. The Friday ruling is being appealed. White told the Associated Press that for the courses to be ready for the 2013-14 school year, it must go forward as long as it can before funding is made available. Registration is scheduled to begin March 7.

That may put the approved vendors in a precarious position, developing courses with no guarantee they can recoup the costs. Notable approved vendors include national for-profit virtual education companies Connections Education and K12 Inc., the publicly run Florida Virtual School, academic institutions like the University of New Orleans, and the Pelican chapter of the Associated Builders and Contractors, a nonprofit promoting free enterprise. You can read the full list of providers and short outlines of their courses below.

The Course Choice program allows students to take an online or face-to-face course provided by any entity approved by the state, regardless of the school or district they attend. Any student in a school rated C, D, or F under the state accountability system can use public funding to take any approved course. Students in schools rated A or B can use public funding to take courses not offered by their school. Providers, who range from for-profit national corporations to local businesses, trade associations, and academic institutions, would be paid based a state-approved rate based on per-pupil funding and would receive half of the money up front and half upon student completion. Priority areas are core courses, college-credit courses, and career and technical education. Here's more on the program from my colleague Erik Robelen.

At the very least, the program would create a marketplace that would allow students to use public dollars to take any course available, sort of like a taxpayer funded Amazon for classes. The state plans to publish an online course catalog and offer an "advanced, interactive online system" for students to assemble pathways to graduation.

At its most extreme, it could theoretically result in high school students receiving nearly their entire courseload from a hodgepodge of alternative providers (each student must take a minimum of one course at his or her home school), and a landscape that includes independent teachers selling courses or even traveling classrooms that resemble food trucks, as has been speculated to me by educators in the state. As part of Course Choice, the state is encouraging "home-grown" innovation from teachers interested in expanding their classes statewide.

Opponents of the program are concerned it could move dollars away from public schools to corporations without a presence in the state. However, the approved vendor list suggests that public school systems, of which there are five, may be able to earn extra revenue by making courses available to students throughout the state. Of the 45 providers, 28 will offer high school courses. Twenty of the courses will be virtual, 12 will be offered face-to-face, and 13 are hybrids.

There are also few details on how the state will ensure the accountability of the courses, opponents have said. In its Request for Applications, the education department said course providers must prove effectiveness on state exams, national career certification tests, and Advanced Placement standards, and will be reauthorized based on job placement and certification results.

Notably absent from the list are any of the major publishers; just last week Louisiana announced it may defer its current textbook adoption because publishers have not offered materials aligned closely enough to the Common Core State Standards. During today's board meeting, a representative from McGraw-Hill outlined the company's efforts to align the content, but board members suggested the deferral is less a result of publishers' failures and more a desire to change how it supplies students with curriculum.

"We're simply not ready to commit to seven years," said board member Walter Lee, referring to the textbook adoption cycle. "As far as I can understand, local school systems can still purchase anything they want to purchase."

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