The recent expansion of Louisiana's voucher program means that the administration of Governor Bobby Jindal will preside over the largest experiment of privatization of public education in the country. Staring this fall, when a large proportion of the state's low- and middle-income families become eligible to receive school vouchers, a big chunk of state education funding will shift from the public school systems to parochial, charter and other privately-owner education providers. The funding shift is only expected to grow the following year, when all students, regardless of material circumstances, will be allowed to receive the so-called mini-vouchers which can be used for any classes or programs not offered in their local public schools.
Every time a student receives a voucher of either type, his local public school will lose a chunk of state funding.
"We are changing the way we deliver education," said Governor Bobby Jindal, a Republican who muscled the plan through the legislature this spring over fierce objections from Democrats and teachers unions. "We are letting parents decide what's best for their children, not government."
Introducing free market concepts into public education has been part of reform movements in several states around the country. Almost everywhere, the number of charter schools, privately-operated but state funded institutions, is growing and many states are either introducing or expanding their own voucher programs that allow students to receive a certain percentage of their state educational allotment and apply it to a school of their choice. Still, none, at the moment, have the scope as wide as the Louisiana program which is open to families with the annual income of up to $60,000. There's no doubt that reform groups from other states are closely watching the Louisiana experiment, hoping to push similarly aggressive policies closer to home.
Louisiana families will be able to spend their voucher dollars in any schools on the state's eligibility list. Although the list includes some of the best private schools in the state, most of them have already indicated that they will be severely limiting the number of such students they're planning to accept.
The Dunham School in Baton Rouge, for instance, has said it will accept just four voucher students, all kindergartners. As elsewhere, they will be picked in a lottery.
Far more openings are available at smaller, less prestigious religious schools, including some that are just a few years old and others that have struggled to attract tuition-paying students.
The schools that list the most available voucher slots, like the New Living World in Ruston which has no library and whose lesson plans revolve around DVDs and Bible verses, or the Upperoom Bible Church Academy whose campus Reuters describes as "bunker-like," might still face the struggle of making themselves look appealing to families looking for alternatives to public schools.