Diplomas for sale: $465, no classes required. Inside one of Louisiana's unapproved schools
Salutatorian Alasia Baker, 17, center, and Khyli Barbee, 15, following Baker, leave a graduation ceremony for Springfield Preparatory School at Victory in Christ church in Holden, La., Saturday, Aug. 5, 2023. Nearly 9,000 private schools in Louisiana don’t need state approval to grant degrees. (AP Photo/Matthew Hinton)
Sharon Lurye, The Associated Press
Published Tuesday, November 28, 2023 10:30AM EST
SPRINGFIELD, La. (AP) -- Arliya Martin accepted her high school diploma with relief and gratitude.
It was her ticket to better-paying work, she felt, after getting kicked out of high school and toiling for eight years at factory jobs to support her children.
"This is a new path for me to get on with my life," she said.
But Martin didn't take any classes or pass any tests to receive her degree. She got it in July from a school where students can get a high school diploma for $465.
Unlike public schools, formal homeschooling programs or traditional private schools, nearly 9,000 private schools in Louisiana don't need state approval to grant degrees. Nearly every one of those unapproved schools was created to serve a single homeschooling family, but some have buildings, classrooms, teachers and dozens of students.
While unapproved schools account for a small percentage of the state's students, those in Louisiana's off-the-grid school system are a rapidly growing example of the nation's continuing fallout from COVID-19: families disengaging from traditional education.
U.S. public school enrollment fell by more than 1.2 million students in the first two years of the pandemic. Many switched to private school or told their state they were homeschooling. Thousands of others could not be accounted for at all, according to an analysis from The Associated Press and its partners.
The students in Louisiana's off-the-grid school system aren't missing. But there's no way to tell what kind of education they're getting, or whether they're getting one at all. Over 21,000 students are enrolled in the state's unapproved schools, nearly double the number from before the pandemic, according to data obtained through a public records request by the AP and The Advocate, a partner news outlet in Louisiana.
To supporters of the system, avoiding state oversight is entirely the point. Advocates say Louisiana's unapproved schools are a natural extension of the doctrine of parental rights.
The place where Martin got her diploma, Springfield Preparatory School, bills itself as an umbrella school for Christian homeschoolers. Most students there do attend the school to work toward an education through actual classes or tutoring.
However, principal Kitty Sibley Morrison is also willing to grant 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 HANDS-OFF OPTION FOR HOMESCHOOLING
Sibley Morrison says she is not selling diplomas, but rather lifetime services for homeschooling families.
"We're not here to make money," she said.
Yet a list of prices is taped to the front window of the school building: $250 for diploma services, a $50 application fee, $35 for a diploma cover and $130 to walk in a cap and gown at a ceremony.
The number of students in unapproved private schools like Springfield has nearly doubled, from around 11,600 in the 2017-18 school year to over 21,000 in 2022-23, according to state records.
There's precious little information available about these schools, which the state calls "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. Some schools have whimsical names such as the "Ballerina Jedi Academy" and the "Unicorn Princess School." Others proclaim their independence with names like "Freedom First."
Most of the schools are tiny, single-family home schools. However, last year, 30 of Louisiana's unapproved schools reported they had at least 50 children enrolled.
There is no way for the government to verify safety, quality or even whether a school exists, said Laura Hawkins, a former state Department of Education official who worked on its school choice efforts up to 2020.
The department warns parents on its website that it cannot confirm whether these organizations even meet the legal definition of a school.
"We didn't want to give parents or anyone a false sense that we knew anything about these schools, should they exist," Hawkins said, "that we could attest to their safety, that we could attest to their actual educational program, anything."
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 submit documentation such as test scores or copies of the student's work to show their child has received 180 days of schooling at the same quality as a public school's. The state-recognized diploma is more widely accepted by colleges and allows students to qualify for a popular in-state scholarship program.
Alternately, families can set up their own private school without asking for state approval. There are no requirements to prove a child is getting an education. In fact, these schools don't even have to submit the names of the students who are attending.
At least two unapproved institutions have had abuse scandals, but the state Department of Education says it has no authority to do anything in response.
"By law, the LDOE does not have oversight over these schools," said Louisiana Department of Education spokesperson Ted Beasley.
One of the most infamous is T.M. Landry in Breaux Bridge. A 2018 New York Times investigation found the school abused kids and made up transcripts to get students into Ivy League schools. It was still open as of last school year with 15 children, according to state records. Another unapproved school in Baton Rouge, Second Chance Academy, has come under scrutiny since its head teacher was arrested on charges of sexually abusing students.
Louisiana's unapproved private schools came into being in 1980 when Christian ministers who ran small private schools joined forces with the budding homeschool movement to push for the deregulation of private education. Lawmakers eliminated the requirement for private schools to have at least 50 students and state-certified teachers.
Opponents have tried on multiple occasions to get the law repealed but faltered in the face of lobbying efforts from Christian homeschool groups.
Today, over a dozen states allow families to open a private school as a form of homeschooling, including California, Illinois and Texas, according to the Home School Legal Defense Association. Around half the states require those schools to teach basic subjects such as math and reading; Louisiana isn't one of them.
'I TAKE THEIR WORD FOR IT'
Springfield Preparatory consists of two low-slung buildings on Springfield's main street. One is an office, the other a former restaurant space where Sibley Morrison's daughter and other teachers lead classes on art, music and more. State records say 250 students attend, though Sibley Morrison said the school doesn't really keep count.
Some homeschooling families come for art or science, others for services like career guidance, test prep and "explanation and support in their parental rights," said Sibley Morrison. Some, such as Arliya Martin, go straight for a diploma.
Kicked out of high school during 10th grade for what she said was self-defense during an altercation, Martin tried a military-style program for at-risk youths, but finished without her GED.
"At 17, I was already by myself. I had my son at 18, and it was just work, work, work," she said.
Then, this summer, she met Sibley Morrison. At 75, Sibley Morrison has been involved in homeschool education since the 1970s and says her mission is to provide an alternative to the "godless" public education system.
Within days of meeting Sibley Morrison, Martin visited her office and had a diploma in her hand.
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 isn't true. After inquiries 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, even though the state has not approved anything about the school. Sibley Morrison says she can use those words because she encourages each family in her program to simultaneously sign up for the state-approved home study program.
She says the diploma recognizes the value of educational experiences outside the classroom.
"I think you're working the oil field, you're working the McDonald's, all of that is just as valid as what the classroom was," Sibley Morrison said. "That's my point, and that's why I sleep well at night -- because I feel good about the parents having alternatives in raising their children."
After learning later that her diploma is not approved by the state and might not be accepted by some colleges, Martin said she did not feel deterred. Friends and family members have gotten diplomas from the same school and gone on to college and successful careers, she said.
In Sibley Morrison's view, parents are the only people who get to decide if and when someone was sufficiently educated.
"When parents say, `My child is ready to go into the real world' -- I take their word for it," Sibley Morrison said.
Angela Grimberg, the executive director of the Coalition for Responsible Home Education, pointed out Louisiana law states that parents who want state approval must apply within 15 days of starting homeschooling. Backdating a diploma that claims to be state-approved would thus be "fraudulent," Grimberg said.
Beasley, the Department of Education spokesperson, said diplomas generally cannot be awarded retroactively. Asked if any government agency has authority to take action if a school sells diplomas, Beasley suggested making a report to the state attorney general's consumer protection division.
The attorney general's office did not respond to a request for comment.
SOURING ON PUBLIC EDUCATION
A diverse spectrum of families have come under Springfield Prep's umbrella, united by the feeling that public school just does not work for them. Among others, there are families who want more flexibility and freedom, students sick of unfair discipline and post-pandemic chaos, and conservative parents who disapprove of books assigned in public school.
Jamie Vander Meulen thought public school wouldn't be a good fit for her three daughters, who all have dyslexia, so she started her own unapproved private school. Her girls learn with her in the morning and then take enrichment classes at Springfield, dabbling in everything from harp to Irish dance. They've also participated in a homeschooling co-op hosted at Springfield.
Vander Meulen's 8-year-old girl, Ruby, described school as "really fun," "artsy" and "magical." Her daughter Rose, 12, said she likes that she can learn at her own pace and spend more time on topics she loves, including science and World War II.
"You learn it and you can keep doing it, so it stays in your brain," Rose said.
Some of those science classes are taught by Harper Mumford, another mom in the co-op. Mumford says other parents thought she was crazy when she started homeschooling. But since the pandemic, families have less trust in public school.
"Before, it seemed more of like a cooperation between schools and parents for education," she said. "Then I think when those mandates started happening, it didn't seem so much as a cooperative effort."
Khyli Barbee, 15, celebrated her graduation from Springfield Prep in August with 22 other students. She said her public high school in Biloxi, Mississippi, had become "crazy" since the pandemic, with rampant bullying and drug use.
"I just wanted to hurry up and get out of school," she said. She didn't have to take any classes to get a diploma: "You just paid to walk."
On the July day when Sibley Morrison handed Martin her diploma, she advised her on next steps, describing scholarships she could use to go to community college.
"If you want our help," Sibley Morrison said, "you just come on back over here and we'll help."
"Y'all seem like good people who know how to help," Martin said. "So I will be back."
Charles Lussier of The Advocate contributed from Baton Rouge, Louisiana.
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