Online schools lead the decline, complemented by measurement changes

NEW ORLEANS, La. – Louisiana’s Department of Education claims the state’s high school dropout rate has fallen from 8.3 percent in 2008-2009 to 5.7 percent in 2009-2010, a 31 percent decline. However, Louisiana’s four year high school graduation rate ranks 47th in the nation, at only 67 percent.

Part of the decrease is due to a policy change that excludes students who attend adult education centers from the drop out rate. Without this exclusion, the drop out rate reduction would have been 16 percent.

Louisiana’s Virtual School appears to be a leading contributor to the drop out decline, since its flexibility caters to at-risk or students who have already dropped out. LVS is an online program that allows students to use the Internet, email, and other online resources to access a wide variety of subjects.

LVS officials tout growing enrollment and higher student performance than traditional schools, and they note their algebra software as a superior innovation. LVS students have scored 13 percent higher on LEAP math exams than students in traditional schools. Even more encouraging, 33 percent of LVS students scored in the “advanced” or “mastery” level on the LEAP exam, as opposed to only 10 percent of traditional schools students. Conversely, only 8 percent of LVS students scored in the “unsatisfactory” or “approaching basic” level on the LEAP exam, as opposed to 42 percent of traditional school students.

Harvard business professor Clayton Christensen affirms the success of online programs in his 2008 book Disrupting Class. He claims that within 10 years, 50 percent of secondary school courses will be online, and by 2024, the number will reach 80 percent.

However, a 2009 U.S. Department of Education study found that although online classes can benefit college students, there has been little research conducted at the K-12 level. Policy makers “lack scientific evidence of the effectiveness” of online classes.

Ken Bradford, Director of Educational Technology at the Louisiana Department of Education, refutes this notion, citing a 2010 U.S. Department of Education study as an example of the success of Louisiana’s online education programs. The study included research-based summaries of effective online education initiatives, and highlighted the LVS algebra program as an example of a valuable online program.

Since online schools can avoid expenditures that traditional schools cannot, schools like Louisiana Connections Academy, an online charter school set to open in Fall 2011, receive lower funding than conventional government schools. Louisiana’s Board of Elementary and Secondary Education pays 90 percent of a one for one conversion, which equates to $4,539 per student, compared to the usual $5,044.

Dale Bayard, board member for the Louisiana BESE, feels that although the state is paying online schools below normal operating costs for traditional schools, they are still paying too much since online schools need far fewer teachers and support staff.

“I am just not excited about giving 90% of local money, state money, and federal money to run an online charter school that will cost far less.”

Bradford states that the Louisiana Department of Education did a scope and sequence of current state funding allotted to school systems in the fall of 2010, and determined that 90 percent of the Minimum Foundation Program, which allocates funds on an equitable basis for Louisiana school districts, funding “was appropriate for an online charter [school].”

Robert Ross is a researcher and social media strategist with the Pelican Institute for Public Policy. He can be contacted at, and you can follow him on twitter.