Giving parents more school choices and helping students leave failing schools for better ones are definitely worthwhile goals. Both have been repeated often by Gov. Bobby Jindal to promote his voucher program that he calls Student Scholarships for Educational Excellence.
Unfortunately, the governor and John White, his state superintendent of education, appear to have put “the cart before the horse.” Based on recent revelations, parents can’t be guaranteed their students will end up in better schools than those they are leaving.
Important questions should have been answered before schools were approved to accept transfer students from low-income families. The tuition they will need to attend nonpublic schools will be provided by the same formula that uses state and local money to fund Louisiana’s public schools.
Investigative work by newspapers statewide reveals that many of the schools that have applied to participate in the program don’t have much more to offer the students who would qualify for the scholarships. And some could be offering less. Consider the following situations uncovered by newspapers that did the research that should have been done by White and his state Department of Education.
The Advocate said almost half of the 861 slots offered by schools in East Baton Rouge Parish would double enrollments at those schools. One school approved for 106 vouchers had only 11 students in the year just ended. The principal says those numbers are wrong and she is working to correct the figures.
The News-Star of Monroe caught the attention of readers statewide when it reported a school there had 300 open slots, a number that would triple its enrollment. The school in question would get $2.7 million in state and local funds if those new slots are filled.
The American Press found that one school in this area had been approved for 135 voucher students, nearly four times last year’s enrollment. A DeRidder school would double its enrollment. The numbers were more reasonable at two Diocese of Lake Charles schools. One has 115 students registered for the new year and has been approved for 23 vouchers. The other had 210 students last year and can accept 14 voucher students.
Other troubling facts were brought out in those newspaper reports about some of the schools offering to take voucher students.
One had only one computer in each classroom. Others didn’t have enough classroom space, but insisted they were working on the problem. One director said she wasn’t sure how they would handle lunches next year. Another said she wasn’t sure how voucher students who qualify for free and reduced-cost school lunches would be handled.
Most of the nonpublic school officials interviewed expressed confidence they are up to the task, despite some seemingly insurmountable odds. And although their enthusiasm may be genuine, this is a serious undertaking that deserves better groundwork than it has received.
Accountability has been a concern among legislators since the voucher program was introduced. Only those students with vouchers will be tested at the schools they attend, so the Legislature left it up to White to determine whether the education they are getting is better than the one they left.
White came under fire even before lawmakers adjourned for failing to do better research before schools were approved. However, in a civic club speech this week he said education personnel are conducting site visits at the schools that were approved. White added that regulations will be released that will govern financial accountability, the number of voucher students schools can accept and the tuition schools can charge.
Those issues should have been resolved before the school application process started.
The Jindal administration says those who say the voucher program was rushed to passage early in the session are wrong, insisting everyone had an opportunity to be heard. Yes, they did, but it was still a expedited process.
One House Education Committee meeting to hear two bills lasted from 8:30 a.m. one morning until nearly 1 a.m. the next morning. I still remember how uneasy I felt walking out to my car in the dark at that hour.
The governor’s retirement package was on the drawing boards much longer and it received closer scrutiny. The end result was passage of only one major bill among a half-dozen introduced.
The governor has repeatedly said the current public education system isn’t getting the job done, and in many places it isn’t. He adds that there are too many failing public schools and millions of dollars are being wasted.
That’s true, but one shoe doesn’t fit all systems. A majority of legislators in this area, for example, voted against the education changes, believing most of the students they represent are getting a quality education. They don’t want anything to jeopardize that.
White and the Department of Education would serve everyone well if they got tough on the requirements necessary for schools to be able to accept voucher students and rejected some already approved. It seems obvious to most observers that all of them don’t measure up to the task.
Jim Beam, the retired editor of the Lake Charles American Press, has covered people and politics for more than five decades. Contact him at 494-4025 or [email protected].