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As private school vouchers expand in New Orleans, eyes turn toward state for accountability plan

Global news, US

Since the flooding that followed Hurricane Katrina, two public school systems have grown side by side out of the wreckage in New Orleans, one operated by the state, another by the local school board. Now, a third school system of sorts, still comparatively small but growing, is elbowing its way into the mix, not entirely public but subsidized by millions of taxpayer dollars. These are the more than two dozen private schools in the parish that have opted to take part in the state’s voucher program, accepting students who qualify for public funding to pay their tuition.

What began as a tiny, state-run pilot program in 2008 with backing from Gov. Bobby Jindal is growing into another miniature school district, on track to educate roughly 2,300 Orleans Parish students when the new academic year opens this fall.

With a statewide expansion opening vouchers to high school students and those attending not just failing but C- and D-rated schools this year, voucher enrollment in the city could grow by another 900 pupils before the school year begins.

All of the schools that take vouchers existed before the program, and most of them are run by the CatholicArchdiocese of New Orleans. Most students at these schools still pay their own tuition. But the latest available data from the state Department of Education provide the broad outlines of what’s emerging as a quasi-public realm, one that has touched off an ideological debate over how closely it should be regulated.

On average, the 23 schools that enrolled voucher students this past school year drew 37 percent of their students from the program. Voucher students made up more than 60 percent of the student body at a handful of the participating schools.

A look at enrollment numbers for the fall, along with the tuition that each school charged this past year, suggests that taxpayers could be putting up about $12 million to fund the voucher system in Orleans Parish, with the average school charging the state about $4,500 per student.

Seen though any ideological lens, this is a major shift. To supporters, the program is giving disadvantaged, largely black students from failing public schools their first entree into a private school system that more affluent families — black and white — have been flocking to in New Orleans since the 1950s. Some of the private schools in the program are already showing encouraging results on state exams, and they doing it with less money per student than the public system.

Detractors nevertheless worry that vouchers will divert resources from already underfinanced public schools, which, by and large, will be left to educate the students who require more expensive special attention.
What’s more, critics fret about millions of public dollars going to schools that aren’t required to hit the minimum academic benchmarks that all public schools, including charters, must meet.

Some schools look to expand

In a few cases, tiny schools in New Orleans that operate independently from the archdiocese are looking to expand dramatically, to judge by the number of voucher seats they have open for the fall. As private schools, they are only as transparent about their plans as they want to be.

Cheryl Leufroy Frilot, founder of the Life of Christ Christian Academy, offered a tour of her school recently, showing off a set of spacious, well-equipped classrooms on North Dorgenois Street. Frilot, who started a school for the archdiocese back in the 1990s and has a master’s degree in special education, emphasized the academy’s small class sizes and the individualized attention students get. “You can’t do kids as cookie cutters,” she said.

Her school has 91 seats available for students from kindergarten through high school. That figure would more than double the school’s existing enrollment, almost a third of which already came from the voucher program last year, state data show. Of those voucher students, only 13 percent hit grade level on standardized exams this year. That statistic, provided by the state for this article, would not have been available to parents on the state’s website during the enrollment period.

At another private school, the Upperroom Bible Church Academy, just 24 percent of voucher students hit grade level this year. The school is housed in a windowless building on Lake Forest Boulevard in eastern New Orleans. Administrators did not return repeated phone calls seeking comment. It has 167 seats open for the fall, which, at the existing tuition rate, would bring the school close to $1 million in public money.

Regulating private schools that take vouchers

Examples like this from across the state — The News-Star, a newspaper in Monroe, turned up a school recently with 315 open voucher seats that gives instruction mainly through DVDs — have focused attention on the one public official who will now decide how to regulate the private schools that take vouchers: John White, Louisiana’s schools superintendent.

In passing the voucher expansion during the recent session of the Legislature, lawmakers punted some of the most important details to White, requiring him to come up with an accountability plan by Aug. 1. Neither the Legislature nor the state Board of Elementary and Secondary Education, a panel that White normally must answer to, will have to sign off on White’s plan, causing many observers to worry.

“This is all being worked out at the (education) department in conversations with the governor’s office and the private school leaders and various other groups,” said Robert Travis Scott, president of the Public Affairs Research Council of Louisiana, an independent watchdog group. “But we’re not aware of any public process or forum or BESE meeting or hearing that’s going to address this.”

Scott added, “The Legislature could call a meeting. There’s nothing to stop them from doing that and asking for a public discussion. BESE could ask for a public discussion on the issue. In my view, both of those things should happen.”

The role of government in education

The voucher debate facing Louisiana is part of a broader discussion about the role of government in education. Government took a big step back when the state-run Recovery School District took over most schools in New Orleans from the Orleans Parish School Board.

Whereas the publicly elected board had run the city’s school system by itself before, the Recovery District began handing control of schools to nonprofit groups — charter schools — run by private boards and operating autonomously. As long as charter schools keep their performance scores rising fast enough and follow the terms of a detailed charter contract, they can stay in business.

The voucher program represents another government retreat. As with charter schools, the state gives private schools a certain amount of money per student and then gets out of the way. Unlike charters, these private schools have no contract with the state. They aren’t required to hold public board meetings. Their voucher students take the same LEAP exams as public school students, but they don’t face any particular consequences for the results.

The Jindal administration defends this approach by pointing out that parents are not being forced into these schools. Parents choose to apply for the voucher, and “parents are the best accountability system we have,” the administration says.

Pressure for rigorous standards

Others — including U.S. Sen. Mary Landrieu; Leslie Jacobs, the godmother of the New Orleans charter movement; and a slew of good-government groups — are alarmed by this line of thinking. They are putting pressure on White to come with a set of rigorous standards for the voucher program to protect students and taxpayers.

Landrieu sent a letter to White this past week urging him to include voucher schools in the state’s new letter grading system, which assigns schools an F through A rating based on test results and other factors.

“In my view,” Landrieu wrote, “rigorous and transparent academic accountability means that parents and students should be able to easily compare the academic performance of participating nonpublic schools and public schools so that they can make informed decisions.”

The Council for a Better Louisiana sent a letter as well, arguing that the state should make sure students in the program “achieve at minimum basic academic standards and graduate from high school.” It added: “For those private schools who do not meet these standards for children, consequences should include removing their eligibility to participate in the scholarship program and providing better choices for parents elsewhere.”

White hasn’t tipped his hand yet on what the accountability system will look like. But he hinted at stronger standards than have applied to the pilot program in Orleans, suggesting that they will likely cover finances and student safety along with academics. White has already visited the Upperroom Bible Church Academy, although he declined to say what his impressions were.

“We’ve been talking with national experts, charter school leaders, traditional school leaders and private school leaders,” White said, “We’re trying to come up with a policy that ensures equality for all without overburdening schools with government and regulation.”

White said the plan should go public in the next few weeks.

The Times-Picayune, 01 July 2012


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