Education: Vouching for Vouchers

Pondering the governor’s strategy

JOSEPH DANIEL FIEDLER ILLUSTRATION

On a scale of one to 10, Gov. Bobby Jindal’s education reform plan ranks an 11 for dramatic change, especially his push to expand New Orleans’ voucher program. If the legislature complies, religious schools and other private kindergarten-through-12th grade institutions could find themselves in a mob of activity not seen since the California Gold Rush.

Jindal says students and the state’s economy can’t wait for public schools to catch up to the quality of private schools, so he proposes giving state vouchers to income-eligible parents across the state. His proposal assumes that parochial and private schools automatically do a better job, but test scores don’t support that assumption so far.

It isn’t certain that students statewide would get a better education in non-public schools, but it is certain that the multi-millions that taxpayers would spend sending them there could be used to spread the successes of publicly financed charter operators.

Schools in New Orleans are on a trajectory of improvement fueled by the proliferation of charter schools, and some educators worry that dividing scarce public dollars among even more schools could jeopardize further improvements.    

“Why vouchers? Why now?” asks Louis Miron, director of the Institute for Quality and Equity in Education at Loyola University. “It could potentially undermine the success of the charter schools.”

 Adopted in 2008 at Jindal’s urging, the program now provides vouchers to New Orleans-area parents who earn less than 250 percent of the federal poverty rate and whose children attend schools that are graded “C” or lower by state standards. The governor’s office says the average value of the voucher is $4,595, which its website notes is less than the average per pupil cost of $8,463 the state gives public schools.

Jindal wants to expand this program to every parish, and his plan is to use existing public school funds to pay for it. If the Legislature goes along, thousands of parents could be eligible to transfer their children to parochial and private schools, thereby reducing public school budgets and providing a boost for non-public schools. In a poor state where about 70 percent of schools are currently rated “C” or lower, this program would open the door for the privatization of education.

The program is touted as an opportunity for “low-income” parents to move their children into better schools. Certainly many impoverished parents are benefiting from the program, but 250 percent of the poverty level is not a good definition of “low-income.” The Louisiana Federation for Children, an offshoot of the Alliance for School Choice, says that families of four can earn as much as $55,875 and still be eligible for a voucher under current program rules. Add that generous income limit to the number of schools graded “C” or less and the number of parents eligible would be considerable.

An even greater issue is the assumption that students would get better instruction at any non-public school. Schools now accepting state vouchers must test students using the state’s LEAP exam, which determines if a student is performing at grade level, but they aren’t subject to other state accountability measures such as being assigned a letter grade based on performance. Because of the lack of accountability, parents could unknowingly take children out of “C” public schools – average schools – and place them in schools that are worse.

Educate Now!, an informational website operated by Leslie Jacobs, a former state Board of Elementary and Secondary Education member, analyzed the test scores of children attending voucher schools last year and found that, on average, they were performing worse than their Recovery School District peers. She reported that only 38 percent of voucher students tested at grade level compared to the RSD’s 49 percent and the state’s average of 75 percent.

Supporters say that schools need time to adjust to the needs of these new students and shouldn’t be judged as ineffective too soon. That may be true, but if any school doesn’t perform over time, there are not any mechanisms in place now to cut off funding. So far, the governor has not supported punitive actions for schools whose voucher students are performing lower than public school averages.

The governor’s office argues that the voucher program should be expanded to ensure that all students have equitable access to a good education. That is a laudable goal, but perhaps the greater incentive is the apparent cost savings. In response to questions about program costs, the governor’s office pointed out that vouchers save about $4,000 per student.

 In theory, if a private school can deliver a superior product for $4,000 less than a public school, then that’s sufficient reason to move to vouchers. The problem with that argument is that once voucher schools enroll an influx of poorly prepared and disadvantaged students, their bottom-line costs will go up, too.

More students, more administrators, more teachers, more reading specialists, more counselors, more school nurses – it all adds up. A school of mostly middle-class to upper-middle-class students doesn’t face the same problems that the average urban and rural public school does. In time, vouchers could equal public per pupil costs.

Even more worrisome is the Legislature’s penchant for taking such programs and adding to them over the years in ways that no longer make good sense. Take the Taylor Opportunity Program for Students as an example. TOPS started over two decades ago as a private initiative by an oilman to encourage a few low-income students to graduate from high school and go to college.

Today taxpayers pay for students to attend state colleges if they take a college preparation curriculum in high school, maintain a C average and score at least a 20, of a possible 36, on the American College Test. A huge chunk of the 40,000 students eligible for TOPS scholarships today live in households with incomes of over $100,000. As a consequence, the state spends $114 million a year to pay for college tuition, while at the same time slashing higher education budgets because it cannot afford to pay its own bills.

If the Legislature adopts the voucher program statewide, history indicates that within a few years pressure to increase income guidelines and drop school letter grade restrictions could lead to a blanket policy that allows parents to make their choice – public or private?

Barring failure of the governor’s proposal, the only hope for public schools is to be so good that there’s no reason for parents to abandon them. Excellence is the ultimate goal anyway, but public schools would reach it faster if lawmakers focused solely on tackling teacher effectiveness, giving more authority to school leaders and lessening the power of school boards.

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