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Potential Course Choice ‘loophole’ concerns Ben Franklin leaders

Benjamin Franklin High School leaders are concerned about preserving the integrity of the selective-admission charter school’s diploma in the face of changes stemming from Louisiana’s new Course Choice program.

“We are ready to apply for Course Choice and be a provider,” CEO Tim Rusnak said to the school’s board of directors Thursday.

But Rusnak has concerns about the program’s potential impact on Franklin.

“The other issue is much more important and much more threatening,” Rusnak warned.

Course Choice is designed to offer students at low-performing schools the opportunity to take courses through high-performing schools. Students also may enroll in courses that are not offered at their schools, such as a unique language class or higher level course.

That “loophole,” Rusnak said, could allow Franklin students to pay to take a course at another school and import their grade back to Franklin.

Rusnak said “kids that can afford it”  can take courses elsewhere, “and they’re not Franklin courses.” He said that threatens the culture and the integrity of the Franklin diploma.

With course load limits undetermined, Rusnak said, it is unclear how many courses a non-Franklin student could take at Franklin. For example, he said, a home-school student theoretically could enroll in an entire course load of Franklin classes.

This won’t be an issue this year as Franklin plans to only offer one course when the school applies to be a provider under Course Choice. However, it could be a problem in future years if the school offers additional courses, Rusnak said.

Franklin can apply to be a provider of Course Choice in the 2014-2015 school year, according to Barry Landry, a spokesman for the Louisiana Department of Education.

While Rusnak said courses would cost about $1,000, Landry said they are projected to cost $800.

Rusnak said Franklin would receive that money as a provider, and Landry confirmed that tuition for Course Choice courses would be paid to the provider of the course.

“Course providers will receive 50% of the tuition up front and the remaining 50% when a student has successfully completed the course on time,” Landry wrote in an email to The Lens on Friday.

The question of who pays the tuition is determined by the status of the students’ school. If they are in a failing school, the state pays tuition, Landry said. Students who attend A and B schools however, would have to pay to take a course their school offered from a Course Choice provider.

Rusnak said at this point he doesn’t know how or if courses that Franklin students take at other schools would be weighted when transferred back to the school.

“We think that this is a loophole that should be closed,” said Rusnak, adding that he is working with other “A” school leaders.

“We think if you’re an A school, you take the courses at the A school.”

Rusnak said that though he thinks the program is well-intentioned, it is something he thinks could damage the school “pretty severely.”

Franklin initially had two students sign up for Course Choice, one by mistake, Rusnak said, but neither decided to follow through with the course. The other student wanted to take Japanese, which Franklin does not offer.

“We’re concerned about the implications in the future,” he said of the program. “We want to stop this before it begins.”

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About Marta Jewson

Marta Jewson covers education in New Orleans for The Lens. She began her reporting career covering charter schools for The Lens and helped found the hyperlocal news site Mid-City Messenger. Jewson returned to New Orleans in the fall of 2014 after covering education for the St. Cloud Times in Minnesota. She graduated from the University of Wisconsin-Madison with majors in journalism and social welfare and a concentration in educational policy studies.

  • Lee Barrios

    Very, very interesting perspective. Rusnick characterizes the ability of his students to take courses from these providers to be a “loophole.” I suppose he means that they can pay for the courses since they don’t qualify (students attending C, D or F schools) to take them for “free” (taxpayer subsidized as in vouchers). I don’t understand why he didn’t think about that last year.

    He evidently thinks several problems could affect his school’s SPS. The course could be difficult and the student might make a low score and reflect badly on Franklin; the class might be easy and the student would get a high score but learn little (this could make him/her less prepared for a future class at Franklin and therefore make a lower grade on “the test” in that future course), the course could be a poorly taught course thereby not preparing the student for the test or future classes. Mr. Rusnick doesn’t seem to have much confidence in LDE’s assurances that these course providers have been thoroughly vetted.

    I wonder of Mr. Rusnick has considered that BESE may not allow him to weight grades taken through course choice. I mean other schools would want to weight (or manipulate ) grades also. This would be a nightmare for the keeper of the stats, LDOE, which already has their own manipulations to conjure.

    Another obvious problem with so much emphasis on School Performance Scores and high stakes testing. When are we going to focus on student learning?

  • RampartStreet

    “Mr. Rusnick doesn’t seem to have much confidence in LDE’s assurances that these course providers have been thoroughly vetted.”

    Has the LDOE done any vetting of course choice providers at all? After the fiasco of the voucher scandals and LDOE’s willingness to throw $$$ at snakehandling preachers masquerading as educators, I can understand Rusnick’s concern that course choice providers might not be “up to” Franklin’s standards. But–if students at a school of Franklin’s caliber want to take a course which isn’t offered at Franklin, there is always dual enrollment at local universities as an option instead.

    What I don’t understand is why Franklin would want to become a course choice provider in the first place. Is it to snare course choice $$$ which otherwise would go elsewhere? Is it to in effect create an “online Franklin” as an extension of the school itself? Since Franklin’s own students presumably wouldn’t be the target audience for this service, who would be? And, if a course like Physics or algebra II is already offered at Franklin, isn’t Franklin exempt from having to accept course choice credits in those subjects since the school isn’t a C, D or F school?

  • Lee Barrios

    It always seems to be about the money, doesn’t it? Franklin would offer courses for the money of course.

    Franklin is not exempt from accepting course choice credits even if they offer the course because students from Franklin must pay for all courses they take under this provision – because Franklin’s an A school.

    You might wonder why a Franklin students would take an outside provider course already offered at Franklin. Several reasons possible. Could be they have a full schedule at Franklin and want more credits, like AP courses to get a leg up when beginning college. Could be they don’t like the teacher at Franklin offering same course for whatever reason. Maybe they think the on-line course will be an easier “A.”

  • nickelndime

    Alan Rampart Street and Lee – O, my favorites have combined. Gawd is gud. Claude have mercy. Omagawd omagawd – lets me pick maself up off da floor cuz I have fallen off da chair again. U 2 is more den I or anybody else deserves.

  • RampartStreet

    The long-range, underlying implication of course choice is that online learning can replace the classroom experience for high school students.

    John White and other corporately bought-and-paid-for EduPoliticians might well like this to be so, as it will provide another method for them to replace certified, career professional teachers with cheaper temp and part-time workers. Ultimately, course choice has the potential to undermine the strength of locally controlled schools in favor of centralization of power at the state level, something which our current governor and his ilk obviously seek.

    But, their assumption is faulty. Brick and mortar schools do much more than simply offer academic classes in terms of the activities, relationships and development of socialization skills which online courses can’t duplicate. Parents and citizens of every town in Louisiana who value and take pride in their local schools as a focus of community identity and cohesiveness over time need to be aware of the potential for damage to long-established local institutions presented by this mail-order catalog of academic options, some with merit, others undoubtedly without.

    Sure, if a student wants to take a course which isn’t offered at his or her school, then distance learning can be a useful second choice option. But–create the mechanism by which it becomes the first choice option and the local institution is immediately undermined, and not necessarily for the social, academic or economic good of high school students or the communities where they live.

    History is long, and we are in the early stages of this “reform” movement whose underlying purpose seems ultimately to be the aggrandizement of corporate interests. It is to be hoped that Louisiana’s next Governor will appoint a Secretary of Education who will recognize both the genuine potential and the undeniable limits of virtual education, and put into place policies which will simultaneously protect and strengthen locally controlled and locally accountable institutions (already largely a thing of the past in the RSD) while limiting the invasive species which is course choice to its legitimate purpose; the enrichment rather than the replacement of fully developed, locally controlled high schools which Mr. Rusnick’s apprehensions evidently foresee.

  • RampartStreet

    @Lee, the LDOE may not allow Rusnick to negatively weight course choice courses, but as principal of Franklin I suspect that he has the authority to positively weight Franklin courses.

    Give course choice courses a 1.00 weight and give the parallel Franklin courses a 1.10 weight, and knowing the ambitions of most Franklin students my guess is that if the course is offered at Franklin, most will choose to take it at Franklin instead of putting themselves behind the eight ball by choosing the course choice provider.

  • Lee Barrios

    Oh I’m sure it will all come out in the wash!

  • Lee Barrios

    Can’t let you have all the fun!