In a package featuring multiple scoops and exclusives, an AP team investigating Louisiana’s rise in unapproved private schools stumbled on a school selling diplomas to anyone whose parents said they had completed their education — even years later — a revelation that rocked the state and reverberated across the nation.
Following AP’s groundbreaking Missing Students analysis that showed that Louisiana stood out for its intense disengagement from public schooling and its unusually permissive category of unapproved private schools, education data reporter Sharon Lurye partnered with Charles Lussier of The (Louisiana) Advocate to investigate.
Under state law, any adult can set up a school by simply declaring the number of students enrolled. There are no requirements to prove a child is getting an education or even say which kids attend.
On a summer reporting trip, Lurye witnessed a woman who was kicked out of school a decade ago buying a diploma from the principal of an unapproved private school — backdated to 2015, the year she would have graduated. She had taken no classes to complete her degree.
In the coming months, Lurye and Lussier met multiple graduates in similar circumstances. The operator of the school defended the practice as an extension of parents’ rights. “When parents say, ‘My child is ready to go into the real world’ — I take their word for it,” the principal said in a stunning interview.
Then, Lurye and Lussier showed the depth of the risks in sending a child to such a school, landing a rare interview with a mom who says a teacher offered her teen daughter money for sexually explicit photos and wanted to warn others against enrolling their kids in an unapproved school.
On AP’s platforms, the stories and immersive treatment garnered more than 205,000 pageviews, with the first story landing in the daily Top 10. AP customers accessed the stories 1,200 times.
Lurye and Lussier were the first to quantify the rise in popularity among Louisiana’s unapproved schools — over 21,000 students — nearly double the number before the pandemic. Many of the families using unapproved schools are homeschooling. But 30 of the schools have more than 50 students. This was quite a feat of investigation given the form of schooling, by nature, involves few records.
The project ran on the front page in New Orleans, Baton Rouge and Arcadiana. Lurye did radio interviews on WWL in New Orleans and for the “Louisiana Considered” program on the public radio stations in Baton Rouge and New Orleans. Prominent pickups included Fox News, Newser and ABC News. The project was named one of the best stories of the week by “The Grade,” a well-read education blog.
For a strong investigation, securing multiple exclusives while providing a public service to the people of Louisiana, Lurye wins this week’s Best of the Week — First Winner.