Vouchers, good intentions, and the trouble that comes with them

Louisiana’s capital newspaper reported this week that two private schools that originally opted into the state’s new voucher program have changed their minds after the teachers union threatened them with legal action. One school is a non-denominational Christian school in suburban Baton Rouge that enrolls about 800 students. It initially set aside four kindergarten seats for the voucher program. The other, a Roman Catholic school in a rural parish ninety miles outside Baton Rouge, set aside six seats in its 200-student school.

So far, not many schools have taken the union’s “offer” to drop out of the voucher program and avoid litigation.

Most Louisiana private schools that chose to participate in the voucher program share these characteristics. They are faith-based and they have reserved a handful of seats for voucher-bearing students. They’ll derive the overwhelming majority of their revenues from tuition-paying students.

The state’s Department of Education had to take this into account when it drafted regulations to hold “voucher schools” more accountable. It decided, sensibly, that private schools enrolling large numbers of publicly funded students will be held to greater public transparency and results-linked accountability than schools enrolling just a handful. If the state imposed the full-range of regulations on schools that set aside less than 1 percent of their enrollment for vouchers, those schools simply wouldn’t participate.

Which would be just fine for Valerie Strauss at the Washington Post, who has led a chorus of complaints from voucher critics in the past week complaining that the regulations Louisiana came up with yield only “pretend” accountability. To Strauss, it’s preposterous to relax accountability on schools enrolling fewer than forty voucher students. (More disturbingly, Strauss would “kick out” the voucher students at private schools that show poor performance; under regulations the state adopted last week, poor-performing schools that fall under the new accountability rules would be kept from enrolling new students.)

So far, not many schools have taken the union’s “offer” to drop out of the voucher program and avoid litigation. That’s saying a lot, considering that most of these schools weren’t relying on revenues from this program in the first place. They had better reasons to set aside a few seats for disadvantaged kids who couldn’t otherwise afford them, and they seem willing to accept the trouble that comes with that.

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