BESE moves ahead with 'Course Choice' program

BATON ROUGE, La. (AP) - Louisiana's top school board approved nearly four dozen organizations on Tuesday to offer courses to public school students through online classes and other nontraditional means, despite a judge's ruling that the program's planned financing is unconstitutional.

Superintendent of Education John White recommended 45 course providers receive contracts to participate in the "Course Choice" program. A panel of the Board of Elementary and Secondary Education backed the list in an 8-2 vote. A final board vote is planned Wednesday.

The program is designed to offer students academic courses, advanced placement classes, skills training and work-based apprenticeships, as the Jindal administration and state education officials push to give students more options beyond the public school building.

The expanded course choices are supposed to begin in the 2013-14 school year.

"I don't believe there's any initiative that we are tackling right now that is more important than this initiative," board member Holly Boffy of Lafayette said. "I'm so excited about the opportunities that the courses will provide to our students."

But Course Choice has no funding stream attached to it. A Baton Rouge judge determined last week that it was unconstitutional to pay for the program - and a voucher program that uses tax dollars to send students to private schools - through the public school funding formula.

That ruling is being appealed.

Critics of Course Choice said BESE shouldn't approve course providers without another source of financing attached to it.

"The very consideration of this agenda item is a waste of time," said Mary-Patricia Wray, with the Louisiana Federation of Teachers, one of the organizations that filed the lawsuit challenging the funding of Course Choice and other education changes pushed by Gov. Bobby Jindal.

White said the law creating Course Choice requires BESE to move forward with setting up the program and contracting with course providers. He said funding decisions can be made later during annual budget discussions with the Louisiana Legislature.

"We don't have an option to delay," said BESE President Penny Dastugue, of Mandeville.

Approved for contracts were online course providers, out-of-state educational firms and colleges seeking state tax dollars to teach students.

For example, a Vermont-based company would provide foreign language classes to high school students. The Acadiana Symphony would provide a music appreciation class for elementary school students in Lafayette. Florida Virtual School would teach online courses for middle and high school students. New Orleans-based Hype Academy would teach a small business entrepreneurship class.

Students enrolled in public schools graded with a C, D or F under the state's accountability system would be able to choose from any of the classes offered. Students in A and B schools could take courses that aren't offered at their schools.

Tuition rates are set a per-class price, based on a percentage of the funding formula payment given to students in public school districts.

Board members Lottie Beebe and Carolyn Hill, who voted against the Course Choice providers, suggested some of their fellow BESE members shouldn't vote on the list because they had received campaign contributions from organizations and companies seeking state tax dollars to teach students.

Boffy disagreed, saying campaign contributions didn't influence her decisions.

"I act with integrity," she said.

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