Louisiana Voucher Program Privatizes Education
Louisiana’s voucher program is now the most comprehensive in the country, thanks to a new law that will allow more low and middle-income students in substandard public schools to use public funds to attend private schools.
Beginning this fall, students whose parents make less than $60,000, and who attend a public school where at least 25% of students test below grade level, will be eligible to take up to $8,800 annually to the charter school of their choice. Louisiana currently has 120 of these schools, and that number is expected to rise as demand for vouchers increases. At least 6,000 students have already applied for the 5,000 available spots. 380,000 students are eligible for vouchers — more than half the state’s total student population.
“We have a moral imperative to improve the education system for our children, our state, and our country, and these new laws will be a game changer for Louisiana,” said Governor Bobby Jindal. “Over the last four years, we’ve made incredible progress by revamping ethics law, cutting taxes, and growing Louisiana’s economy even during a national recession — but the single most important thing we can do to ensure the continued prosperity of our state and our people is to make sure that every child gets a great education.”
HB 976, which was signed into law in April, makes it easier to form charter schools by streamlining the application process and creating three new charter pathways. It also gives parents more tools by allowing schools to become eligible for Recovery School District assistance after three years of failing if a majority of parents petition for it.
The voucher program will expand further next year, when students of all income levels will be able to use mini-vouchers worth up to $1,300 per student per class to pay private-sector vendors for classes not offered in the public schools. This voucher money, which is subtracted from public school funding, can be used to pay tutors, online schools, businesses, industry trade groups, and other educational providers. State officials must review each of these private sector classes to ensure that vouchers are being used responsibly.
“It’s hard to overestimate the substance of these policies which will have a major impact on public education and benefit countless Louisiana school children for years to come,” said Council for A Better Louisiana President Barry Erwin.
It’s estimated that the newly expanded voucher program may remove as much as $3.3 billion annually from public schools — a fact that has public school officials worried. Reuters reported,
The state has not done a formal fiscal analysis, but public school advocates say subtracting the costs of vouchers from their budgets is unfair because they have the same fixed costs — from utilities to custodial services — whether a child is in the building four hours a day or six. [Louisiana Superintendent of Public Education John] White responds that the state is not in the business of funding buildings; it’s funding education.
Vouchers can be used to pay for tuition at religious schools, and teachers unions want to put a stop to that. Most of Louisiana’s 120 charters are religious schools. The Louisiana Federation of Teachers, the Louisiana Association of Educators, the Louisiana School Boards Association, and 34 other public school boards claim the bill violates the state’s constitution and “put[s] public school systems in more peril than ever.” They are suing the state of Louisiana and the Board of Secondary and Elementary Education in an attempt to reverse the reforms. The U.S. Supreme Court has ruled that vouchers can be used for religious education provided the state does not promote any one faith — parents must choose where to send their children.
Other public school advocates are concerned because most charter schools are not closely monitored by state officials. Starting next year, students attending schools with voucher money will be required to take state standardized tests to measure progress. It’s unclear what consequences will come into play for charter schools whose students have low test scores.
Vouchers have worked well in Louisiana in previous years. The state has one of the lowest high school grad-uation rates in the country, but Governor Jindal says that rate is improving. The 2011 rate was 3.7% higher than 2010, and graduation rates have improved 11.6% since 2002 — outpacing the national average. “To me,” said Superintendent White, “it’s a moral outrage that the government would say, ‘We know what’s best for your child.’ Who are we to tell parents we know better?”