Louisiana to push ahead with paying private firms to teach kids

May 24 (Reuters) - Louisiana’s schools chief vowed on Friday to push ahead with a plan to let students take classes from private firms and nonprofits at taxpayers’ expense, despite a legal setback and objections from some educators.

The Course Choice plan, which goes far beyond any other U.S. school program in letting families customize a child’s education, had been thrown into doubt after the state Supreme Court ruled earlier this month that Louisiana could not divert money meant for public schools to private organizations.

State Superintendent of Education John White said he would fund the program - which was passed by the Republican-dominated legislature in 2012 - from his department’s general budget instead, squeezing out an estimated $2 million by cutting back expenses such as staff travel.

Under the program, kindergarten through 12th grade students can sign up for free classes on scores of topics, ranging from remedial reading to heavy equipment operation. The classes, both online and in person, are offered by an eclectic lineup of unions, nonprofits and for-profit companies. The state picks up the tab, which averages $700 per class.

“The purpose of Course Choice is to provide every family in Louisiana with an education that meets the exact needs and interests of their child,” White said.

Even for online classes, local schools would have to provide classroom space and proctors to monitor the children. Public schools would remain accountable for students’ scores on state tests, even if key subjects like math and reading were taken from private vendors.

Those conditions outraged Janice Williams, superintendent of Claiborne Parish schools, who has directed her principals to try to block children from enrolling. “Course Choice is going to destroy public education as we once knew it,” she said.

Officials in other school districts have also rejected many applications for Course Choice enrollments, saying some appear to be fraudulent or wildly inappropriate - a first grader signing up for high school Latin, for instance.

Two of the most aggressive recruiters, FastPath Learning and SmartStart Education LLC, promise students free tablets that they say are necessary to take the courses.

Those companies also charge among the highest tuition fees. Louisiana has agreed to pay them up to $1,370 for each course, half when the student begins work and half at completion.

Under a pilot “pay for results” program, half of the final payment for FastPath is withheld pending state math and reading tests. The company is paid only if its students perform better on state standardized tests than other children on average in the neighborhood.

Reporting by Stephanie Simon; Editing by Scott Malone and Richard Chang