The State Board of Elementary and Secondary Education (BESE) held a special meeting to consider a proposal from state Superintendent of Education John White to inject a much needed accountability component into the new, statewide expansion of the “Student Scholarships for Educational Excellence Program.” This program has existed primarily in New Orleans over the past four years, but legislation was approved this past legislative session that opened the program to students across the state.
Act 2 by Rep. Steve Carter (R-Baton Rouge) allows families with children who attend schools rated “C,” “D” or “F,” with students in “D” and “F” schools receiving a higher enrollment priority, to have their children enroll in nonpublic schools and have the state pay the tuition. Children entering kindergarten, and whose families’ financial status is under 250 percent of the federal poverty level, also qualify for the program. The tuition cannot exceed the per capita public school expenditure.
The Louisiana Association of Business and Industry (LABI) strongly backed this legislation, believing that failing schools should not trap students just because of the zip code where they reside. LABI also backed an amendment sponsored by Rep. Neil Abramson (D-New Orleans) that required Superintendent White to develop an accountability policy for the scholarship program no later than August 1. LABI supports accountability in the program primarily for two reasons: first, the state should always be accountable for tax dollars; and, second, the state designed the program to offer better educational opportunities for students. If the nonpublic school cannot offer better academic outcomes than the public school nearby, students and families still do not have a real choice.
Technically, BESE was not required to approve the policy. However, in the interest of transparency and providing citizens with the opportunity to comment on the proposed rules, they called themselves into session to discuss the proposal. BESE approved the new policy by a vote of 9 to 2. The policy is rigorous and holds schools accountable without dictating curriculum or strangling schools with government interference. After all, the intent is not to duplicate the current public school system that has failed far too many children for far too many years.
Act 2 already required that all scholarship, or “voucher,” students take the same state tests that traditional public and charter school students do. The state then releases those test results to the public. The new rules add additional academic and operational accountabilities. Programs with 10 or more scholarship students per grade, or with 40 or more total students taking state tests, will receive an annual performance score called a Scholarship Cohort Index. If the index is a failing one, the school will not be able to take additional scholarship students the following year. If the school’s index is a failing one during the majority of a four-year period, the state will suspend that school’s participation in the program until it can demonstrate that it has adopted a different strategy to improve educational outcomes.
The strongest aspect of this policy is that the state will immediately remove any participating school from the program that cannot demonstrate “basic academic competence.” Operational guidelines are also unwavering. Schools must grow scholarship enrollments responsibly; tuition increases must be reasonable; and schools must use state scholarship dollars only to benefit the education of scholarship students. The new rules give Superintendent White the flexibility to move swiftly against potential “bad actors” who may be geared more toward profit than education.
Kudos to both BESE and Superintendent White for strongly addressing the accountability issue. This week’s actions will likely be the key to the future success of strong, choice-based educational opportunities that will, in the not-too-distant future, help our state grow economically and improve the quality of life for all of our citizens.
Brigitte Nieland, Vice President and Council Director for LABI’s Education Council, contributed to this column.