Revisiting course choice, in Louisiana and elsewhere

Louisiana State Superintendent of Education John White wrote in response to my blog post last week, pointing out that the course choice program in Louisiana is not limited to online courses, and includes blended and face-to-face courses as well. Therefore, as he correctly pointed out, my comparison of Louisiana course choice to a state virtual school with multiple providers isn’t quite accurate. He also reiterated the commitment that the state’s leadership has for course choice, noting that there is considerable political support for changing the funding to meet the vision for the program. We are always glad to receive corrections and clarifications, and in this case I was especially glad to hear a proactive statement of commitment to the goals of the program in Louisiana.

In Utah, another state with a prominent course choice program, our research for Keeping Pace this year appears to showing a program that is not yet living up to its promise, at least in terms of students accessing online courses from outside of their districts. Our preliminary review suggests that course choice in Utah, called the Statewide Online Education Program (SOEP), served 664 students with 1,279 course enrollments last year. Those numbers put Utah on the very low end of supplemental online courses being offered or funded by the state, via course choice or a state virtual school. Even taking into account Utah’s relatively small student population, the numbers are still low.

What’s keeping course choice in Utah from growing larger and fulfilling its promise, and is it simply in the early stages such that we can expect it to grow significantly in the coming years? It appears that districts are suggesting to their students either the district’s own online courses, or courses offered by the Electronic High School, instead of the SOEP. If students choose either of these options the district keeps the student funding, although it may have contracted with a provider and is paying for the district sponsored online course.

If those online courses result in positive outcomes, then the program would be successful even if students aren’t choosing many courses from outside their district of residence. But if students aren’t truly aware of and considering their online course choices outside of their district, then they may be steered towards options that are not the best fit for them, and the course choice program won’t achieve its promise.

It’s too early to call Utah’s SOEP a success or a failure, but it is clear that the most optimistic predictions for the program have not been achieved.