Sunshine and school vouchers: How Louisiana gets it right
The Louisiana voucher program is like a toddler learning to walk in a house set with booby traps. Now one year old, it has been bruised by court defeats, bullied by unions, and mocked for its meager academic accomplishments. Even comedian Bill Maher recently poked fun at the fact that just 40 percent of voucher-bearing students could report grade-level achievements.
The Louisiana voucher program is like a toddler learning to walk in a house set with booby traps.
Photo by John Horton
With the exception of the D.C. Opportunity Scholarship, no other school-voucher program has endured so many growing pains. But critics have bludgeoned the Louisiana program because they can. Few private-school-choice initiatives are as transparent as the Pelican State’s; sunshine allows us to see how students are performing in Louisiana, whereas most other voucher and tax credit scholarship programs are opaque.
That kind of openness may, when performance suffers, give critics a lot of grist. But it could eventually yield benefits for students and taxpayers.
Consider the recent news that the state has barred seven schools from enrolling new voucher students, based on their poor showing on the Louisiana Educational Assessment Program (LEAP). That means the system is working: These schools happened to enroll a high percentage of voucher kids, and therefore faced greater stakes for lousy performance (private schools that enroll fewer voucher kids are subject to less regulation).
Because the consequences are so swift, State Education Superintendent John White told me that he expects to see fewer such schools sanctioned in the future. Failure and mediocrity won’t be tolerated. “We’re sending a powerful message to the rest of the system,” White said.
Voucher critics may roll their eyes at such a statement, but there is a precedent for White’s assertion. University of Arkansas researchers studying the Milwaukee voucher program, the nation’s oldest, found that test-based accountability likely led to “significantly higher levels of reading gains” for voucher students. Simply put, the fact that schools had to disclose the results of the test they administered pushed them to step up performance.
Moreover, the Arkansas study also found that testing requirements and other transparency mandates (e.g., publication of graduation rates) helped to weed out bad schools from the Milwaukee program but did not discourage growth. Student enrollment grew even as expectations for schools got tougher.
So why are expectations in other voucher and tax-credit-scholarship programs so low? Most other states have loose testing requirements—many mandate the administration of a norm-referenced test, which most already were using—and few require schools to disclose their individual results. None but Indiana and Louisiana have consequences for “failing” schools.
The answer can be found in the tension within the voucher movement. It should be no surprise that Louisiana and Indiana are two states that allow public accountability to coexist with private school choice. They’re the nation’s two newest voucher programs, and they have moved beyond the familiar “let-parents-vote-with-their-feet-and-judge-the-school-by-whether-anyone-wants-to-attend-it” arguments and are doing more to assure parents and taxpayers that private schools accepting scholarship-bearing students will be held to certain expectations regarding how much those youngsters actually learn while enrolled. There are still many veteran voucher and tax-credit-scholarship proponents who have yet to catch up with the educational demands and expectations of the twenty-first century. Many still insist that only the marketplace matters. Others, for pragmatic reasons, simply want to dodge the rhetorical hand grenades flung at programs such as Louisiana’s.
Thank goodness Louisiana and folks like John White have been smarter than that. Others should be so bold.