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Classes a la carte: States test a new school model

By Stephanie Simon

(Reuters) - Louisiana Superintendent of Education John White has a problem with schools.

They're too confining, he says. They trap kids in chairs, in classrooms, in the narrow bounds of an established curriculum. So White and a handful of fellow revolutionaries have begun pushing a new vision for American public education.

Call it the a la carte school.

The model, now in practice or under consideration in states including Louisiana, Michigan, Arizona and Utah, allows students to build a custom curriculum by selecting from hundreds of classes offered by public institutions and private vendors.

A teenager in Louisiana, for instance, might study algebra online with a private tutor, business in a local entrepreneur's living room, literature at a community college and test prep with the national firm Princeton Review - with taxpayers picking up the tab for it all.

The concept alarms many traditional educators. They fear public schools will lose funding to private vendors and will end up with such crimped budgets that they won't be able to provide a full range of academic classes, much less extras like sports, clubs and arts. That, in turn, could accelerate the exodus of students and the cutbacks in funding.

Teachers, superintendents and school board members also warn that an a la carte system could leave behind children from poor or unstable homes who may not have computers to take online classes, transportation to reach far-flung vendors, or adult guidance to help them sort through a dizzying menu of options. The system also has the potential to leave students unsupervised for large chunks of the day, which could raise safety and discipline concerns.

"We're really concerned about equity," said Don Wotruba, deputy director of the Michigan Association of School Boards. "There will be haves and have-nots."

Backers of the concept acknowledge there will be challenges but say the one-size-fits-all "factory model" of public school is woefully outdated.

Students in many states have a vast array of school choices, including charter and online options, but once they pick a school, they're typically limited to classes offered within its walls (or on its website). The more flexible models being tested and debated require students to pick a "home base" school where they can play sports and consult with guidance counselors, yet allow them to reach outside for some or all of their academic classes and electives.

"Whether you want to be a welder or a nuclear physicist, it's highly likely that there are places beyond your local high school that are better able to prepare you for that," White said. "Within the four walls of the school, there is only so much you can do."

White argues, too, that a la carte can save taxpayers money. Louisiana plans to cut funding for each public school by about $1,300 for each class a student takes from an outside vendor. But many of the vendors charge far less; their average fees, to be paid by the state, are just $800. The savings are to be divided between the local school district and the state treasury.

Despite White's promise of taxpayer savings, Louisiana's program, dubbed Course Choice, hit a roadblock last week when a state judge ruled that private vendors could not be paid with money set aside for public schools. White plans to appeal. In the meantime, he's pressing ahead with plans for students to begin ordering off the menu in the spring.

The state Board of Education on Wednesday approved 45 vendors offering hundreds of classes. A few target young students, such as a music class for 5- and 6-year-olds. Most, however, are aimed at the high school crowd.

The Baton Rouge Chapter of Associated Builders and Contractors, a nonunion industry group, plans to train teens in carpentry, pipefitting and heavy equipment operation, with the state picking up fees of $550 per course. "Our thrust is promoting our industry and giving students an opportunity for careers," said Robert Clouatre, the chapter's director of education.

A local construction workers' union plans to offer classes of its own, in scaffold building, work zone safety and the like.

Louisiana Public Broadcasting has designed a $1,280 online class in environmental science, drawing on its library of TV documentaries. A New Orleans teacher who runs a small faith-based school will offer a $900 entrepreneurship course; she is in the midst of revising the curriculum so it does not rely on Scripture to teach financial precepts.

Students across Louisiana can participate as long as they remain enrolled in a traditional public school and take at least one class from that school.

There is no income cutoff, meaning the state could end up paying for wealthy students to take ACT and SAT prep classes taught by private companies such as Princeton Review and Sylvan Learning. White said that prospect didn't trouble him. "It's a wise use of state funds to parents to choose the path that's right for their kids," he said.

Other states are testing different paths toward the same goal of customizable schools.

Students in Utah can enroll in classes taught by any of 15 state-approved online vendors, including private, for-profit companies. If they don't like the way geometry is taught in their high school, for instance, the state will pay for them to take the class from an online vendor and deduct that sum from the high school's appropriation. Students could pick a different vendor for an online Spanish class and a third for U.S. history.

In Michigan, a task force tapped by the governor to reinvent public education has come up with a sweeping plan that would let kids pick and choose offerings from any school that will accept them - so they could take art at their neighborhood school, literature online, biology from one charter school and Spanish from another, with the state parceling out funding to each provider.

Ultimately, public schools might come to specialize, with one focused on science and the next on world languages, said Richard McLellan, the attorney who heads the task force.

Critics often say "the governor is trying to destroy public education as we know it," McLellan said. "That's accurate."

A spokesman for Governor Rick Snyder said he aims to enhance, not destroy, public education, by allowing state funding to flow to any number of quality educators instead of sending the bulk of it to traditional schools. Snyder has not said whether he supports the McLellan plan but has repeatedly called for reinventing the school so students can learn "any time, any place, any way, at any pace."

One key question about a la carte models is accountability: how to ensure students learn what they need to know when their schooling is so scattered.

The Michigan proposal largely leaves quality control up to course providers; the state wouldn't review curricula or require all students to take the same standardized tests.

Louisiana took a tougher stance, screening all the vendors who applied to teach courses and rejecting more than half. The state will also require some vendors to test their students regularly and will withhold payments if scores don't improve.

Another hurdle: It takes sophisticated software to manage such a fragmented education system. Colorado's Douglas County School District, which serves wealthy suburbs outside Denver, recently sought to test an a la carte program but found it first needed a multi-million-dollar systems upgrade, said Meghann Silverthorn, a school board member.

Perhaps the biggest question, however, is the most basic: Will parents buy into a radically new model of public education?

"It's disruptive change," said Idaho schools chief Tom Luna, who has embraced aspects of the a la carte model. "Not so disruptive for kids, but very disruptive for adults."

Arizona state Senator Rich Crandall understands the hesitation.

He is a big proponent of school choice; earlier this year he introduced a bill that would let students select up to two courses from online providers. Yet Crandall says he is reluctant to allow kids to customize their entire education.

"High school is not going to a catalog and picking a list of seven classes - that's not a high school experience," Crandall said.

He thinks, he said, of his teenage daughter. If she were to parcel her schooling among dozens of vendors, who would be responsible for making sure she stayed on track to earn her diploma - or took classes that truly challenged her?

And then there would be this conundrum, he added, laughing: "What football team does she cheer for?"

(This version of the story corrects paragraph 17 to remove reference to location of a New Orleans teacher's school. The school is not in the teacher's home.)

(Reporting by Stephanie Simon; editing by Lee Aitken and Prudence Crowther)

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