The first of its kind and scope in the United States, Louisiana’s Course Choice program presents a promising opportunity to dramatically reduce achievement gaps while providing significant new educational options for families, without drastically affecting traditional public school budgets.
Course Choice affords students in underperforming schools (or any schools with limited course offerings) the ability to attend virtual, in-person, or blended classes from providers outside their assigned schools. Louisiana’s 42 approved Course Choice providers consist of five Louisiana public school districts, all Louisiana public colleges and universities, and various for- and not-for-profit organizations. In this first year of operation, 2,400 students attend classes in core academics, Advanced Placement, dual enrollment, and career and technical education.
By targeting the highest-need curricular areas in the lowest performing schools, Course Choice gives students and schools a new way to address areas of unmet need for individual students in specific content areas. With its inception, Louisiana now offers every student in the state access to Advanced Placement courses.
Leveraging the scalability and border-busting impact of technology, many Course Choice offerings provide students in failing schools with highly qualified teachers they otherwise would not have. In the 2011-12 school year, over 100 school sites in Louisiana lacked a certified Algebra I teacher. Unbound by physical barriers, Course Choice can eliminate that problem. Moreover, especially with the virtual and blended instructional models, content can be personalized, self-paced, and focused on mastery of material, rather than being rushed by a traditional pacing chart.
At an average cost of $800 per student per class, Course Choice provides schools low-cost courses they wouldn’t otherwise offer and delivery that may be more suited to diverse learning styles in 21st century classrooms. Importantly, Louisiana has taken an important step to ensure the financial sustainability of the program by implementing a performance-based funding plan, in which 50% of tuition is withheld from providers until students complete their courses successfully and on time.
For students seeking career or technical education opportunities, Course Choice also affords broader opportunities for hands-on learning, internships, and vocational training.
A commitment to quality control and efficiency in shutting down providers who don’t meet targets will be critical to the long term success of the program in Louisiana; and such rigorous standards for selecting, reviewing, and paying providers will be key to the growth and sustainability of Course Choice programs nationwide.
As more states look to Course Choice to expand quality options for otherwise underserved students, there are many reasons to be optimistic about Course Choice as a valuable reform in new jurisdictions as well. Replicating the successes and learning from the challenges of Course Choice in Louisiana, states could address achievement gaps and expand educational options for all families in a fiscally sustainable way.
Note: this article was produced in collaboration with and is cross-posted at The Lexington Institute, a non-partisan think tank based in Arlington, VA.