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A Case of Voucher Waste

One newspaper’s revelation

CHERYL GERBER PHOTOGRAPH

In its current condition, the state’s voucher program could turn out to be the biggest waste of taxpayer money since the building of the Sunshine Bridge, Gov. Jimmie Davis’ boondoggle “bridge to nowhere.”

State education officials had the opportunity to ensure that the program would actually achieve academic benefits for students trapped in failing public schools, but they punted instead. The accountability measures proposed by Superintendant John White and adopted by the Board of Elementary and Secondary Education in July are more smokescreen than consequences for poor performance.

The measures allow the distinct possibility that some students could leave an average “C”-rated public school and spend their entire kindergarten through 12th grade years in a failing non-public one, if a parent so chooses. If there’s any logic to this scenario, it’s hidden in the muddy narrative that the department of education released to the public.

Calling the department’s public announcement a “muddy narrative,” of course, is a reference to White’s e-mail to the governor’s office about “muddying up the narrative” about the New Living Word School in Ruston. The New Living Word School is a religious school that the department originally approved to receive 300 voucher students, even though its principal admitted to a Monroe newspaper that the school didn’t have the room or the staff to teach them. The NewsStar reported that the school relied on DVDs to instruct a student body of about 120. Later, the newspaper obtained e-mails sent by White outlining a strategy to shield legislative supporters from the negative news reports.

After the story broke, the department cut the number of the New Living Word School’s approved voucher students to 165, but according to The NewsStar, the tuition increased from $1,800 to $6,300, an increase of $4,500 per pupil since May. Taxpayers will now pay $1.4 million for DVD instruction.

Wasted money isn’t the worst possibility. Lack of strong oversight means that children could spend important formative years in schools that aren’t better than the ones they left and possibly worse.

The legislation setting up the voucher program allows students from low- to moderate-income families to attend non-public schools at taxpayer expense if they attend “C,” “D” or “F”-rated schools, letter grades that the state attaches to public schools as part of stringent accountability measures.

Of the 956 “C,” “D” and “F”-rated public schools reported by the department of education’s website, nearly 40 percent are “C”-rated schools – not a sterling recommendation, but a giant leap above failing. As of the department’s July 23 report, 16 percent of students offered vouchers attended “C” schools, which means hundreds are moving from acceptable schools to schools that haven’t been rated and never will be.

In lackluster public schools, at least, teachers and principals are beginning to be held accountable for poor results – some critics say in draconian ways that any compassionate person would cringe to witness. Under new rules, teachers who receive three ineffective evaluations, which are linked to test scores, can be fired. Principals are replaced after three years of no growth in their school’s test scores.

Non-public schoolteachers and principals aren’t subjected to such pressure. Under measures adopted by BESE, voucher students must take the same standardized tests that public school students take, but only schools with more than 40 test-taking students will get rebuked for failing scores. After four years of receiving less than 50 out of 150 on a scoring measurement designed by education officials, the school could lose illegibility to acquire new voucher students. If there’s such a thing as less than an “F,” that measurement is it.

Such abysmal performance by a public school would lead to a state takeover.

The department’s public releases place much emphasis on attempts to create accountability measures on voucher schools that equal those applied to traditional and charter schools. They aren’t even close to equal, and there is no way to achieve it. The state can’t fire non-public schoolteachers or their DVDs.

 If anything, non-public schools should be held to higher standards to match the unstated assumption that they perform better than public schools regardless of the fact that there’s no evidence that they do.

Congress is still haggling over the Opportunity Scholarship Program, a voucher program operating in the District of Columbia, even though it isn’t achieving much. A study conducted by the National Center for Education Evaluation and Regional Assistance showed “no conclusive evidence that the OSP affected student achievement overall, or for the high priority group of students who applied from ‘schools in need of improvement.’”

Parents who received vouchers felt their children were in a better environment and more likely to graduate, the study indicated, but student surveys showed no difference in their children’s level of satisfaction.

Gov. Jindal’s often-stated claim that parents are the best judges of the correct schools for their children is a red herring. Taxpayers – even the childless ones – support public education because a healthy economy and civilized culture require educated citizens. They offer a free education for the good of society, not for the good of individuals or to boost the declining enrollments of parochial and private schools.

Many groups and influential people pressed White for accountability standards and some of them accepted the outcome as better than nothing. The Bureau of Governmental Research, however, criticized White’s proposal before it became official and urged BESE to amend it in a way that would hold non-public schools “to a higher standard.”

“Otherwise,” the BGR’s report says, “The state will run a very real risk of throwing taxpayer money away and wasting precious years of children’s education.”

 

“More broadly, the proposed system calls on BESE to conduct periodic reviews of participating private schools. It allows BESE to penalize a school, but only after it’s found to have ‘demonstrated gross or persistent lack of basic academic competence.’

Short of no accountability standards at all, it is difficult to imagine a lower standard of performance than what the proposed system offers. Yet the proposal also allows waivers in some circumstances.”
--Bureau of Governmental Research report, July 24, 2012

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