Course Choice: the death knell of public education?

St. Augustine Marching Band


St. Augustine High School Marching Band, New Orleans, via Angie Antimatter on Flickr

Bobby Jindal, the Republican governor of my hometown state of Louisiana, is, by any measure, not a fan of traditional public education. As a graduate of twelve years of public schooling in the state and the daughter of two retired Louisiana State University professors, it is personally painful to review his record, which consists of cutting public funding for education and/or transferring it to for-profit and religious providers. Consider the following:

  1. After Hurricane Katrina in 2005, as my colleague Sarah Carr has detailed, all New Orleans public school teachers were summarily fired and the system replaced more or less wholesale with 80 percent charter schools, publicly funded but privately managed. That’s a higher percentage than any other U.S. city. For-profit companies were hired to manage five of the charter schools, but by the 2012-2013 school year, these companies’ managers had been fired, disgraced, or simply left town.
  2. In 2008, Jindal, an evangelical Christian who also holds a degree in biology from Brown University, introduced the “Louisiana Science Education Act,” which allows local school boards to spend millions on “supplemental materials” to support the teaching of creationism in public schools. (A student-led campaign to repeal the law has been joined by 78 Nobel laureates).
  3. State funding for Louisiana’s public colleges and universities has been cut a total of over 80 percent since the 2007-2008 fiscal year. $11 million in proposed cuts to higher education in 2013-2014 means the sixth straight year of cuts.
  4. He’s implemented “one of the broadest voucher programs in the country, allowing students to take state money and attend schools such as “Conquering Word Christian Academy,” “Life of Christ Christian Academy,” and “Upperroom Bible Church Academy,” many of which teach creationism and have poor academic records. Overall, only 40 percent of voucher students in Louisiana scored proficient on this year’s state standardized tests. The state average for students in public schools was 69 percent.

This record must be taken into account when considering Jindal’s most recent innovation in public education: Course Choice.  This is an a’ la carte voucher system that allows high school students to register for credit-bearing courses provided by third parties, paid for with a few million dollars in scarce state education funds. Three thousand students, about two percent of the state’s high school enrollment, have registered for the courses so far, which will begin in two weeks. They are being taught by a mixture of for-profit companies (Edgenuity, K12, Princeton Review), local public colleges, trade unions, professional associations, and other nonprofits. Offerings are both online-only and hybrid, with locations around the state. Some are for college credit, while others are vocational.

Reviewing the site, I have to confess that I’m torn somewhere between being horrified and intrigued. Horrified because this seems on its face like yet another ploy to siphon off money from public education, especially toward for-profit providers with spotty records. K-12 Inc., in particular, has a poor record running online for-profit K-12 schools. Where full-on voucher programs have a strongly controversial track record, these “mini-vouchers” are a more insidious path to privatization. This is an example of what education reform critic Justin Reich calls “backpacks full of cash” leaving public schools for private vendors of all kinds.

Intrigued because bottom line, Course Choice is offering more students more options. Many of the courses look like decent bets. Students will get exposure to hybrid and online learning without the risk of transferring to an all-online school or the cost of tuition. Some of the courses provide college credit and others vocational experience. Providers get only half the funding on signup and the other half when students complete the course–a crude form of “performance funding” that nevertheless seems to elude our federal higher education aid system.

The most popular courses by far were in ACT Prep–20 percent of all registrations. One hundred percent of the students signed up for the ACT courses come from low-performing schools, which means that they are able to take the Course Choice classes for free. It also means that likely they are majority minority and low-income.

So the net outcome of this first round of enrollments is that around 600 kids from poor schools get to take the same test prep course that rich kids take for hundreds of dollars, which will maybe do something small to level the playing field in a college admissions process which is known to be systematically biased against kids like them.

Course Choice has been controversial–already leading to a State Supreme Court case limiting its scope. I hope the scrutiny continues. But I’m also interested in the experiment.


POSTED BY Anya Kamenetz ON August 1, 2013

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[…] within the education-reform complex. I agree with Ravitch that the governor of my hometown state, Bobby Jindal, is probably one of them. I also agree that there are always plenty of people out to make a buck who […]

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