Accountability and voucher politics in the Pelican State

Governor Bobby Jindal’s school voucher proposal for Louisiana has been dragged into the familiar politics of parental choice. The state House took up the measure today, with Democrats calling for a smaller pool of eligible students and strict accountability of schools receiving voucher revenue. It doesn’t matter that Jindal would require participating schools to assess their voucher students with Louisiana’s standardized test and disclose the results. Democrats want the state to penalize private schools for poor performance.

Governor Bobby Jindal’s school voucher proposal for Louisiana has been dragged into the familiar politics of parental choice.

Let’s set aside the size of the eligibility pool—Jindal would offer vouchers to low-income students in schools graded C, D, or F, and opponents want to drop the “C” schools—and focus on accountability. The governor is going further than most school choice advocates in preferring to assess voucher students with the same tests given at public schools, but he wouldn’t have private schools face any legislatively determined sanctions if their students score poorly. There may be a political craving among some Louisiana lawmakers to hold dominion over private schools that receive public funding, but the best evidence we have supports the path Jindal has chosen.

The Milwaukee voucher program gives us guidance. The researchers at the University of Arkansas’ School Choice Demonstration Project reminded us in today’s Philadelphia Inquirer that Wisconsin’s school accountability requirements seemed at least partly responsible for the reading gains among voucher recipients. The final year of the project’s study showed the achievement of voucher students outpaced that of public school students, progress that may be attributable to the transparency required of participating private schools. Milwaukee’s voucher schools have to administer the state standardized test and report the results publicly.

“Interestingly, the voucher students’ superior gains became clear only after the private schools that accepted vouchers were required to publish their average test scores, just as the public schools do,” the researchers wrote in the Inquirer. “Whether this improved the private schools’ teaching or test preparation is open to question. Still, the combination of school choice and public accountability led to a clear boost in reading achievement, though no significant difference in math.”

Granted, the Milwaukee voucher program has gatekeepers empowered by the Legislature to keep weak schools from entering the program and poor performers from staying. But these watchdogs look at more than just test scores, and the School Choice Demonstration Project may have shown that the threat of public scrutiny alone can boost achievement levels. It would be wise to allow Jindal the flexibility to test that potential further.

This is not to say that consequences should never be imposed on publicly funded private schools. Three years ago, my Fordham colleagues proposed a sliding-scale measure of accountability for voucher programs, whereby regulations might be heightened for private schools that receive more public revenue. If a school has, say, 90 percent of its revenues coming from a voucher program, then it’s reasonable to hold that school accountable for failing to meet established academic benchmarks, even if that means withdrawing funding from the school.

But if a 40,000-student tax credit scholarship program in Florida gives us any indication, there may be relatively few schools in Louisiana that rely so strongly on voucher revenue. On average, Florida tax credit scholarship recipients make up one of every five students at 1,100 participating private schools.

It’s unlikely this kind of nuance would sway Louisiana’s most ardent voucher opponents, and it’s unlikely that many who call for penalties on poor-performing private schools would vote yes on the voucher plan without finding another reason to vote against it. But given the sweep of Jindal’s proposal, the debate can only benefit from these distinctions.

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