05 December 2023
Nearly 9,000 private schools in the American state of Louisiana do not need state approval to give high school diplomas.
Public schools, formal homeschooling programs and traditional private schools all need state approval. Nearly all of the schools lacking approval were created to serve a single homeschooling family. But some have buildings, classrooms, teachers and many students.
A small percentage of Louisiana's students have ties to unapproved schools. The schools are being called Louisiana's off-the-grid school system. Some observers say they are a growing example of the nation's continuing effects of COVID-19 because families appear to be leaving traditional education.
U.S. public school enrollment fell by more than 1.2 million students in the first two years of the pandemic. Many families sent their children to private school or told their state they were homeschooling. But the Associated Press (AP) and its partners say thousands of other students are unaccounted for.
The students in Louisiana's "off-the-grid" school system are not missing. But there is no way to know what kind of education they are getting.
The AP and The Advocate, a Louisiana newspaper, say that over 21,000 students are enrolled in the state's unapproved schools. That is nearly double the number from before the pandemic.
Supporters of the system want to avoid state oversight. They say Louisiana's unapproved schools are an extension of the idea of parental rights in education.
One such school in Louisiana is Springfield Preparatory School. The school calls itself an umbrella school for Christian homeschoolers. Most students there attend the school to get an education through classes or tutoring.
However, school leader Kitty Sibley Morrison is also willing to give a diploma to anyone whose parents say they were homeschooled, even years earlier.
"Sometimes it takes two or three times to explain to them that they are free," Sibley Morrison said. "Their parents are in charge of them, not the state."
A different choice for homeschooling
Sibley Morrison said she is not selling diplomas; she is selling lifetime services for homeschooling families.
"We're not here to make money," she said.
Yet a list of prices is placed on the front window of the school building: $250 for diploma services, a $50 application fee, $35 for a diploma cover and $130 to take part in a ceremony.
The number of students in unapproved schools like Springfield has nearly doubled. State records show there were 11,600 students in the 2017 to 2018 school year and over 21,000 in 2022 to 2023.
There is little information available about these schools. The state calls them "nonpublic schools not seeking state approval." To start one, an adult must only report their school's name and address, their contact information and how many students they have.
Most of the schools are small, single-family home schools. However, last year, 30 of Louisiana's unapproved schools reported they had at least 50 children enrolled.
Laura Hawkins says there is no way for the government to know whether the schools are safe, good, or even whether they exist. Hawkins is a former official of the Louisiana Department of Education who worked on its school choice efforts until 2020.
The department warns parents on its website that it cannot confirm whether these organizations even meet the legal definition of a school.
Louisiana has two options for homeschooling.
Parents who want their child to receive a state-recognized high school diploma can apply for the official home study program. They must apply using test scores or copies of the student's work. The work must show their child has received 180 days of schooling of the same quality as a public school's.
The state-recognized diploma is more widely accepted by colleges. It also permits students to be considered for a popular in-state scholarship program.
Families can also choose to set up their own private school without asking for state approval. There are no requirements to prove a child is getting an education. The schools do not even have to provide the names of students who are attending.
At least two unapproved schools have had abuse scandals. But the state Department of Education says it has no legal power to do anything.
Today, over 12 states permit families to open a private school as a form of homeschooling, including California, Illinois and Texas. Around half the states require those schools to teach basic subjects such as math and reading. Louisiana is not one of them.
‘I take their word for it'
Springfield Preparatory occupies two buildings on Springfield's main street. State records say 250 students attend, but Sibley Morrison said the school does not keep the number.
Some homeschooling families come for art or science. Others attend services like career guidance, test preparation and "explanation and support in their parental rights," said Sibley Morrison. Some, such as Arliya Martin, go straight for a diploma.
Martin was expelled from high school in 10th grade after getting in a fight. She tried a military-style program for at-risk youths but finished without her GED. The GED test provides what is equal to a high school diploma.
"At 17, I was already by myself. I had my son at 18, and it was just work, work, work," she said.
Within days of meeting Sibley Morrison, Martin visited her office and got a diploma.
The document was backdated to 2015, when she would have graduated high school. It also said she had completed a program for graduation "approved by the Louisiana Board of Education," which is not true. After questions from AP, Sibley Morrison said there had been a mistake and that the document would be corrected.
Signs at the school advertise "state-approved" diplomas although the state has not approved the school. Sibley Morrison said she can use those words because she pushes families in her program to also sign up for the state-approved home study program.
After learning that her diploma is not approved by the state and might not be accepted by some colleges, Martin said she did not feel bad. Friends and family members have gotten diplomas from the same school and have gone on to college and successful careers, she said.
Sibley Morrison said parents are the only people who can decide if and when someone is properly educated.
"When parents say, ‘My child is ready to go into the real world' — I take their word for it," Sibley Morrison said.
I'm Dan Novak.
And I'm Ashley Thompson.
Sharon Lurye reported this story for the Associated Press. Charles Lussier contributed to it. Dan Novak adapted this story for VOA Learning English.
Words in This Story
off-the-grid — adj. (informal) not connected to a formal or official system
enrollment — adj. the process of getting accepted to an institution such as a school or college and providing all necessary documents
oversight — n. the act of overseeing and activity
umbrella — adj. describing a group that includes many other groups that might be quite different or in different places
option — n. a choice or possibility to do something
tutor –v. to teach only one or a very small group of students
diploma — adj. a document that is given to people who complete their classes and course of study at a high school, college or university
scandal –n. something that happens because it is shocking, morally or legally wrong