In the coming weeks, many thousands of Louisiana children will head back to school. Several thousand of them will enroll in private schools for the first time, courtesy of Louisiana taxpayers and Gov. Bobby Jindal's voucher program. Until this year, state vouchers were available only in Orleans Parish; now they're going statewide. The voucher program was part of Jindal's top-to-bottom overhaul of public education during this year's legislative session. Voucher supporters say the program gives parents a choice when local public schools fail their children, and we don't argue with that logic. We join many others, however, in saying that the governor's program lacks sufficient accountability measures.
In fact, if the governor had had his way, lawmakers would have imposed no standards whatsoever on private schools participating in the program. Only when state Rep. Neil Abramson, D-New Orleans, and others objected loudly to the lack of accountability provisions did Jindal relent — and even now the voucher bill's accountability language is vague. It required state Education Superintendent John White to draft unspecified standards by Aug. 1. White met that deadline, and the state Board of Elementary and Secondary Education (BESE) approved White's proposed standards the next day. Voucher supporters breathlessly hailed the accountability measures as groundbreaking, but a closer examination shows White and BESE have set the bar very low — too low, in our opinion — for private schools that stand to rake in millions of taxpayer dollars through the voucher program.
For starters, only a few schools will even be subject to the so-called accountability standards — and many of those that don't measure up won't face any repercussions for four years. Here's why:
• Only those private schools that accept at least 40 students in grades that are subject to testing in public schools — grades 3 through 11 — will have to administer the public school test for each applicable grade level, and then only to the voucher students. State officials estimate only a quarter of the participating private schools will enroll enough voucher students to trigger the accountability standards. Applying those standards to only one-fourth of participating private schools falls woefully short of "accountability."
• Test results will be made public, and they will be used to grade participating private schools. But, unlike public schools, the private schools won't be assigned letter grades — and they can still advance failing voucher students to the next grade level. Where's the "accountability" in that?
• White says many schools will phase in voucher students starting with kindergarten, which means their first students won't be tested until their fourth year in the program. By then, academically deficient private schools already will have inflicted irreparable harm upon voucher students.
• The plan states that if a school "lacks basic academic performance," BESE can remove that school from the list of those eligible to participate. That sounds fine, but what does "basic academic performance" mean? Already it has been shown that many participating schools — to no one's surprise — are faith-based institutions linked to fundamentalist evangelical churches that plan to teach creationism. Is teaching creationism part of achieving "basic academic performance"?
One good aspect of White's plan is the requirement that any school that earns a failing grade cannot accept new voucher students the following year. However, even schools that fail one or two years in a row can keep the students they have — and White can waive any of the plan's provisions. Only after participating schools fail three out of four years will they be "put on hold," White says. Is it fair to voucher students to let them stay in a failing school for up to four years? We think not, and we think White and BESE should step up and put more teeth into the standards.
At the end of the day, much more than taxpayer dollars is at stake here; the futures of thousands of Louisiana schoolchildren hang in the balance. In his mad rush to push through a voucher program — mostly to up his cred as a vice presidential candidate — Jindal has played fast and loose with underserved kids and their hopes for a better education. Those children deserve better than to be pawns in Bobby Jindal's political chess game, to be sacrificed in pursuit of his blind ambition for national office. They deserve the chance to go to better schools, not just different schools that produce the same failed results. We think White and BESE need to go back to school themselves — to devise meaningful accountability standards that will make voucher supporters' promises more than mere slogans.