| June 1
June 1 Louisiana is embarking on the nation's
boldest experiment in privatizing public education, with the
state preparing to shift tens of millions in tax dollars out of
the public schools to pay private industry, businesses owners
and church pastors to educate children.
Starting this fall, thousands of poor and middle-class kids
will get vouchers covering the full cost of tuition at more than
120 private schools across Louisiana, including small,
Bible-based church schools.
The following year, students of any income will be eligible
for mini-vouchers that they can use to pay a range of
private-sector vendors for classes and apprenticeships not
offered in traditional public schools. The money can go to
industry trade groups, businesses, online schools and tutors,
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."
BIBLE-BASED MATH BOOKS
The concept of opening public schools to competition from
the private sector has been widely promoted in recent years by
well-funded education reform groups.
Of the plans so far put forward, Louisiana's plan is by far
the broadest. This month, eligible families, including those
with incomes nearing $60,000 a year, are submitting applications
for vouchers to state-approved private schools.
That list includes some of the most prestigious schools in
the state, which offer a rich menu of advanced placement
courses, college-style seminars and lush grounds. The top
schools, however, have just a handful of slots open. 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
The school willing to accept the most voucher students --
314 -- is New Living Word in Ruston, which has a top-ranked
basketball team but no library. Students spend most of the day
watching TVs in bare-bones classrooms. Each lesson consists of
an instructional DVD that intersperses Biblical verses with
subjects such chemistry or composition.
The Upperroom Bible Church Academy in New Orleans, a
bunker-like building with no windows or playground, also has
plenty of slots open. It seeks to bring in 214 voucher students,
worth up to $1.8 million in state funding.
At Eternity Christian Academy in Westlake,
pastor-turned-principal Marie Carrier hopes to secure extra
space to enroll 135 voucher students, though she now has room
for just a few dozen. Her first- through eighth-grade students
sit in cubicles for much of the day and move at their own pace
through Christian workbooks, such as a beginning science text
that explains "what God made" on each of the six days of
creation. They are not exposed to the theory of evolution.
"We try to stay away from all those things that might
confuse our children," Carrier said.
Other schools approved for state-funded vouchers use social
studies texts warning that liberals threaten global prosperity;
Bible-based math books that don't cover modern concepts such as
set theory; and biology texts built around refuting evolution.
TEACHERS WEIGH LAWSUIT
The U.S. Supreme Court has ruled that vouchers can be used
for religious education so long as the state is not promoting
any one faith but letting parents choose where to enroll their
In Louisiana, Superintendent of Education John White said
state officials have at one time or another visited all 120
schools in the voucher program and approved their curricula,
including specific texts. He said the state plans more "due
diligence" over the summer, including additional site visits to
In general, White said he will leave it to principals to be
sure their curriculum covers all subjects kids need and leave it
to parents to judge the quality of each private school on the
That infuriates the teachers union, which is weighing a
lawsuit accusing the state of improperly diverting funds from
public schools to private programs of questionable value.
"Because it's private, it's considered to be inherently
better," said Steve Monaghan, president of the Louisiana
Federation of Teachers. "From a consumer perspective, it's buyer
To date, private schools have not had to give their students
state standardized tests, so there's no straightforward way for
parents to judge their performance. Starting next year, any
student on a voucher will have to take the tests; each private
school must report individual results to parents and aggregate
results to the state.
The 47-page bill setting up the voucher program does not
outline any consequences for private schools that get poor test
scores. Instead, it requires the superintendent of schools to
come up with an "accountability system" by Aug. 1. Once he does,
the system cannot be altered except by legislative vote.
White would not say whether he is prepared to pull vouchers
from private schools that do poorly on tests.
He pointed out that many kids applying for vouchers are now
enrolled in dismal public schools where two-thirds of the
students can't read or do math at grade level and half will drop
out before they graduate high school. Given that track record,
he argues it's worth sending a portion of the roughly $3.5
billion a year the state spends on education to private schools
that may have developed different ways to reach kids.
"To me, it's a moral outrage that the government would say,
'We know what's best for your child,'" White said. "Who are we
to tell parents we know better?"
That message resonates with Terrica Dotson, whose
12-year-old son, Tyler, attends public school in Baton Rouge. He
makes the honor roll, but his mom says he isn't challenged in
math and science. This week she was out visiting private
schools. "I want him to have the education he needs," she said.
The state has run a pilot voucher program for several years
in New Orleans and is pleased with the results. The proportion
of kids scoring at or above grade level jumped 7 percentage
points among voucher students this year, far outpacing the
citywide rise of 3 percentage points, state officials said.
Studies of other voucher programs in the U.S. have shown
In Louisiana the vouchers are available to any low- to
middle-income student who now attends a public school where at
least 25 percent of students test below grade level.
Households qualify with annual income up to 250 percent of
the poverty line, or $57,625 for a family of four.
Statewide, 380,000 kids, more than half the total student
population of 700,000, are eligible for vouchers. There are only
about 5,000 slots open in private schools for the coming year,
but state officials expect that to ramp up quickly.
NO FISCAL ANALYSIS
Officials have not estimated the price tag of these programs
but expect the state will save money in the long run, because
they believe the private sector can educate kids more cheaply
than public schools.
Whether those savings will materialize is unclear.
By law, the value of each voucher can't exceed the sum the
state would spend educating that child in public school -- on
average, $8,800 a year. Small private schools often charge as
little as $3,000 to $5,000 a year.
Yet at some private schools with low tuition, administrators
contacted by Reuters said they would also ask the state to cover
additional, unspecified fees, which would bring the cost to
taxpayers close to the $8,800 cap. The law requires the state to
cover both tuition and fees.
In the separate mini-voucher program due to launch in 2013,
students across Louisiana, regardless of income, will be able to
tap the state treasury to pay for classes that are offered by
private vendors and not available in their regular public
White said the state hopes to spur private industry to offer
vocational programs and apprenticeships in exchange for vouchers
worth up to $1,300 per student per class. Students can also use
the mini-vouchers to design their own curriculum, tapping state
funds to pay for online classes or private tutors if they're not
satisfied with their public school's offerings.
State officials will review every private-sector class
before approving it. They are still working out how to assess
rigor and effectiveness.
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. White responds that the
state is not in the business of funding buildings; it's funding
While public schools fear fiscal disaster, many private
school administrators see the voucher program as an economic
Valeria Thompson runs the Louisiana New School Academy in
Baton Rouge, which prides itself on getting troubled students
through middle and high school. Families have struggled to pay
tuition, she said, and enrollment is down to about 60 kids.
"We're a good school," Thompson said, "but we've been
The vouchers have brought in a flood of new applicants and
the promise of steady income from taxpayers. Thompson enrolled
17 new students in two days last month and hopes to bring in as
many as 130. "I'm so grateful," she said. "You can't imagine how