Diplomas for sale: $465, no classes required — inside one of Louisiana’s unapproved schools

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.

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 home-schooling 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 home-schooling. 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 home-schoolers. 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.

“Their parents are in charge of them, not the state,” Sibley Morrison said.

Sibley Morrison says she is not selling diplomas, but rather lifetime services for homeschooling families.

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.

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.

Homeschooling parents who want their child to receive a state-recognized high school diploma can apply for the official home study 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.

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.

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.

Some homeschooling families come to Springfield Preparatory for art or science classes. Some, such as Arliya Martin, go straight for a diploma.

Kicked out of high school 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.

Then, this summer, she met Sibley Morrison. Sibley Morrison, 75, says her mission is to provide an alternative to the “godless” public education system.

Within days of meeting Sibley Morrison, Martin 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 state-approved program for graduation, which isn’t true. After inquiries from AP, Sibley Morrison said there had been a mistake and the document would be corrected.

By law, the state does not have oversight over the unapproved schools, said Louisiana Department of Education spokesperson Ted Beasley. 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.

Martin said she did not feel deterred. Friends and family members have gotten diplomas from the same school and gone on to successful careers, she said.

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.”

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Charles Lussier of The Advocate contributed from Baton Rouge, Louisiana.

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The Associated Press education team receives support from the Carnegie Corporation of New York. The AP is solely responsible for all content.

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