If we believe every child can attain a career or a college degree, we must also believe that the adults closest to them — parents and teachers, not bureaucrats — should choose how children are educated.
This simple idea — that the adults who know and love our students should be empowered to make choices on their behalf — is the core of Louisiana Believes, our state’s plan for continued improvement in our schools. Parents should be able to choose the right school for their children. Teachers should be empowered to choose the activities best for student learning. And principals should choose how best to use dollars and which teachers are best for our kids. If change is going to happen, it’s going to come from our homes and schools, not government agencies and regulators.
But empowerment is just half of the equation. On the other side is an equally important concept: accountability. To be clear, I mean accountability not in the sense of more rules and regulations from Baton Rouge and Washington. I mean accountability for outcomes and achievement. I mean accountability for producing results. Empowered people, close to children, accountable for results: That’s a formula for improvement.
One component of Louisiana Believes is the much-discussed Student Scholarship Program, which provides low- and moderate-income families dissatisfied with their current schools a choice of alternative options, many of which are private schools. It is part of our state’s plan to empower the adults closest to children.
And as the program expands statewide, it is important that the program and its schools be fully accountable for student achievement and for responsible use of the public dollar. That is why today the Board of Elementary and Secondary Education (BESE) will vote on a plan for academic and operations accountability for private schools running scholarship programs.
The proposed standards for academic accountability are simple and unbending. As with traditional and charter public school students, scholarship students take state tests. As in those schools, test results are reported publicly for each school.
Programs with 10 or more scholarship students per grade, or with 40 or more total students taking state tests, receive a performance score called a Scholarship Cohort Index (this, too, is similar to the public system, though no traditional elementary or high school in our state receives a score based on a number of students as small as 40).
A failing index score one year means the school will not take more scholarship students the following year, a more rigid standard than exists in the traditional system. And for scholarship schools, similar to the traditional and charter systems, after four years, if a school’s program has failed for the majority of that time, its participation is put on hold until the school demonstrates it’s back on track.
Perhaps most important, the proposal states that any participating school unable to demonstrate “basic academic competence” may be immediately declared ineligible to participate.
The business and operations rules proposed are equally strong. Among them are guidelines to ensure that schools grow their enrollments at a responsible pace, that tuitions likewise grow responsibly, and that schools use scholarship funds solely for the educational benefit of scholarship students.
This is a system whose standards match those of public schools and whose consequences are swifter. Keeping with the belief in both accountability and empowerment, the system exists not to tell teachers what to teach or to tell administrators how to run their schools. We need less of that in all of our schools, public and private alike. But the rules are important protections against the rare instance of potential harm to students or potential breach of the public trust. That’s why private school leaders worked with us on this proposal; they know accountability is vital to the Scholarship Program’s success.
There are more than 800,000 students in our state’s schools. The scholarship accountability plan BESE will consider today speaks to a small percentage of them, but it says something big about our beliefs as a state. That is, we believe in our educators and families, and we will empower them to do what’s right for kids. We also believe in our children, and anything short of full accountability for their success won’t pass the test.
John White is state superintendent of education. This article originally appeared in the New Orleans Times-Picayune.