Louisiana Voucher Oversight Program Hailed, Criticized

The new system of oversight of the schools participating in the landmark Louisiana voucher program, was unveiled this week, and while the supporters say it will do the job of holding schools accountable for their results, opponents were quick to counter that it contains holes that will allow those taking part in the voucher programs to fail students while continuing to receive state funds.

The Louisiana program is expected to be the largest school choice effort in the nation. The state government will provide vouchers that will cover full cost of tuition at a private school of family’s choice for all lower- and middle-class families whose children reside near a failing or low-performing public school. Governor Bobby Jindal spearheaded the program in partnership with State Superintendent of Education John White, and it is scheduled to go into effect this fall. While the debate over the program raged in the state and all over the country, White reiterated that making sure that participating schools are held accountable for student achievement will be one of the program’s main goals. The newly released plan is the answer to the question of how the education officials plan to do just that.

“I think it’s window dressing,” said Steve Monaghan, president of the Louisiana Federation of Teachers. “It doesn’t have any real teeth in it.”

Under the new rules, schools will not be penalized for poor scores on state standardized tests if they have fewer than 40 voucher students enrolled in the upper elementary or secondary grades. Those schools can continue to receive state funds even if their voucher students fail to demonstrate basic competency in math, reading, science and social studies.

White estimated that 75 percent of the 120 private schools in the voucher program this year will fall into this protected category.
Schools with larger enrollments will get a numerical grade from the state based on their voucher students’ test scores. A school that scores less than 50 on the 150-point scale will lose the right to bring in new voucher students. But it can continue to receive public money indefinitely to serve students already enrolled.

Across Louisiana, over 10,000 students have applied for the program, with a small minority choosing to enroll in some of the state’s most prestigious private schools. The majority of the vouchers, however, will go towards funding tuition at smaller Christian schools that have opened recently specifically to take advantage of the voucher program. Although the new guidelines give education officials discretion to remove any school from enrolling voucher students if it doesn’t demonstrate basic academic competence, on previous occasions White has said that he favors a hands-off approach; it is unclear whether officials will take advantage of that leeway to shutter schools.