The meeting room of the Board of Elementary and Secondary Education is the seat of power over public schooling in Louisiana. file photo

Forty-five online schools, colleges, and other educators are one step closer to instructing Louisiana public school students, a committee from the state’s top education board decided Tuesday.

That’s despite a ruling by a Baton Rouge-area judge last week that using state education money to pay these providers violate the Louisiana constitution.

The Board of Elementary and Secondary Education’s Academic and Instructional Goals Committee also debated the propriety of voting to approve providers who, in some cases, had contributed to members’ campaign funds. But members are not required to recuse themselves based on campaign donations, a Louisiana Board of Ethics official told The Lens after the meeting.

The Louisiana Course Choice program that these providers are part of, authorized by Act 2 of the 2012 legislative session, allows students to enroll in courses provided by colleges, individual teachers and “virtual” schools, as long as the course provider meets state criteria. The state pays for the services by allocating money from the Minimum Foundation Program, the pool that funds public schools on a per-pupil basis.

Critics of the Course Choice program and the state’s similarly constructed school voucher program have argued that, under the state constitution, Minimum Foundation Program money can be allocated only to public schools, not to private schools or businesses. Judge Tim Kelley’s ruling Friday embraced that view.

Nonetheless, during Tuesday’s committee meeting, state education Superintendent John White urged members to approve a list of course providers selected by his office. Let the Legislature and the courts worry about payment, he said.

“Because the lawsuit only has to do with the funding of it, I’m telling you that there’s no reason for you to wait,” he told the board.

The board ultimately approved the state education department’s course provider selection, but not without contention. Board members Lottie Beebe and Carolyn Hill voted against the measure. Both have routinely opposed Jindal-backed education overhauls.

Beebe suggested that the board postpone its vote until board members more fully understand the lawsuit’s impact. Hill agreed and voiced another concern: “These course providers have significantly contributed to these board members’ campaigns,” she said. Ethics laws needed to be upheld, she added.

State ethics laws mandate that political candidates publish a list of contributors  to their campaigns; both Boffy and Garvey did so:

Boffy, who represents District 7 (which includes Calcasieu, Vermilion and six other parishes), responded to Hill’s accusations, saying that she makes decisions in the best interest of students. Garvey was not at the meeting.

“Anyone can contribute to my campaign if I decide to run,” she said. “I just want you to know, that I act with integrity, and when someone on the board questions that, I find that very troubling.”

Louisiana Board of Ethics spokeswoman Alainna Giacone said that it’s not improper for Boffy and Garvey to vote on the issue. “It’s not an issue because it’s a campaign contribution,” she said. It would become a legal issue, however, if Boffy or Garvey were employed by one of the course providers, and then voted on the contract with the course provider, Giacone advised.

Jessica Williams

Jessica Williams stays on top of the city's loosely organized collection of public schools, with a special emphasis on charter schools. In 2011 she was recognized by the Press Club of New Orleans for her...