Streamlining Commission Suggests Baby Steps To Education Reform

Coming off the wires this morning is a recommendation by Louisiana state treasurer John Kennedy that the state institute a $4,000-per-year tax credit to parents with children in “failing” public schools should those parents decide to move their kids into private schools.

Kennedy himself made the recommendation.

School choice is a movement which has gained momentum in Louisiana in recent years. While voucher programs like the one Kennedy proposes have only recently managed to gain traction, in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina an aggressive program of charter schools was instituted in Orleans Parish – with wild popularity as its result. More than half of New Orleans’ public schools are currently charter operations, and an August poll of Orleans Parish registered voters discovered that 74 percent support charter schools and 62 percent would like to see more of them.

A charter school is one run essentially as a private school, with operational control vested in a principal and a decision-making apparatus surrounding the school itself rather than the school system in general. Charters don’t charge tuition and get public funding, and they exchange the freedom from the normal education bureaucracy for some elevated standards of accountability in performance.

Also in New Orleans, a program not dissimilar to the one Kennedy proposes was enacted into law last year. The Student Scholarships for Educational Excellence Program was a narrowly-tailored voucher operation which offered up to $6,300 in tuition assistance to kids who:

– Reside within the geographic boundaries of the covered district (Orleans Parish);
– Are members of families with a total income that does not exceed 250% of the current federal poverty guidelines (about $53,000 for a family of four);
– Are entering kindergarten, first grade, second grade or third grade; and
– Were enrolled in a public school during the 2007-2008 school year that has been identified by the Department of Education as meeting the definitions outlined in the legislation authorizing the scholarship program, unless the student is entering kindergarten for the first time during the 2008-2009 school year.

The New Orleans scholarship program attracted 1,250 applicants for 893 slots made available in private schools, with hundreds of happy parents now able to choose between ordinary public schools, charters and private schools in an area which for a very long time consigned the city’s poor to one of the worst educational systems in the free world.

The Hayride is a big proponent of school choice almost regardless of how it is executed, as we’ve expressed an ultimate goal of a market-based educational system in which politicians, bureaucrats and union bosses have zero power to inflict their agendas on parents, teachers, principals and kids in our schools.

But Kennedy’s proposal, should it be taken up by the state legislature next year, is going to generate a major fight. The proponents of the old status quo had little ammunition in New Orleans, where the school system was rife with corruption and amazingly poor performance. But a statewide tax credit program to rescue kids from failing schools is bound to bring out the teacher unions and other usual suspects opposing any change to the current failed command-style model.

The quote below following the institution of the New Orleans voucher program is a perfect example of the mentality Kennedy and his commission faces:

“What we are looking at is further deinvestment in the public system. We have had problems with deinvestment in the public system for decades,” said teachers union spokesman Christian Roselund. “This does not look good for public education.”

Again – Louisiana spends $10,500 per student on an educational system ranking 49th in the country. Deinvestment is not the issue; return on investment is. And the teacher unions have proven again and again that they are not interested in excellence in education, but only their own power. There are criticisms to be made on Kennedy’s voucher proposal – it may be too narrow a proposal, though combined with the school tax credit which goes into effect next year it does help to cover a great many of the state’s schoolchildren, and like the New Orleans voucher program it’s too dependent on whether the state education department thinks the school in a particular child’s district is “unacceptable” or not. But one criticism you can’t make of the plan is that giving parents more choice over where their kids go to school “doesn’t look good for public education.”

It may not look good for the entrenched cabal controlling the state’s public schools and/or the clients of that system, but few in the teacher’s unions or other lobby groups fighting to preserve an unacceptable status quo have even bothered to make a showing that their interests coincide with those of Louisiana’s parents or taxpayers at all.

As debate begins on a fresh round of school choice initiatives like the one Kennedy’s commission is proposing next year, perhaps it’s time the opponents start justifying their positions. It ought to be entertaining.

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