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NEW ORLEANS — As Louisiana debuts one of the nation’s most extensive private-school voucher programs, deep divides persist over who should be accountable for ferreting out academic failure and financial abuse: the government or parents.

school voucher programs
Photo by Sarah Garland

Across the country, vouchers have resurged in a big way over the last two years—both as a form of school choice and a political lightning rod. Republican governors in Louisiana, Indiana, New Jersey and other states have championed them as a solution to the challenges besetting public education. More recently, Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney joined the chorus, saying he hopes to turn an eight-year-old voucher program in Washington, D.C. into a “national showcase.”

About 5,600 students and 119 private schools will participate in Louisiana’s new statewide voucher program this fall.

Much of the debate over vouchers centers on whether they should exist at all (partly because the term is so combustible, many politicians have opted for the milder term “scholarship” to describe new programs). But in states like Louisiana and Wisconsin, where vouchers are already a fait accompli, policymakers are just as divided over how much government regulation participating private schools should face.

On one side are the free-market purists who argue that parents provide the best form of oversight. Under this mindset, families receiving school vouchers can and should be counted on to decide what constitutes a quality education for their children—even if that includes sending their kids to schools teaching that dragons are real, or that the Ku Klux Klan worked in the service of justice.

On the other side are those who argue that the government provides the best form of accountability, particularly when public tax dollars are involved. Under this mindset, only substantial advance vetting of participating voucher schools can prevent widespread fraud and abuse.

“Unfortunately, the political debate is still on ideological grounds: ‘I believe in government,’ or ‘I believe in the market,’ ” said Jeffrey R. Henig, a professor of political science and education at Teachers College, Columbia University.

But Henig and others see more consensus in research and academic circles. There, even some of the most vociferous champions of vouchers now believe a free-market approach to schooling needs limits.

Howard Fuller, the founder and director of Marquette University’s Institute for the Transformation of Learning and a long-time voucher supporter, says he continues to believe in the importance of school choice for low-income families. But he no longer believes a free-market approach to accountability will safeguard taxpayer dollars and the well-being of children.

“Parent choice alone will not guarantee quality,” he said.

‘Tactical’ privatization

Vouchers never completely died: Louisiana, Ohio and Wisconsin all created or significantly expanded programs between 2006 and 2011. However, the debate was far more muted in the final years of George W. Bush’s presidency and the early years of the Obama administration. During that period, a group of moderate Democrats and Republicans coalesced around a vision of education reform that featured greater parental choice (usually in the form of charter schools) and stricter accountability provisions (usually in the form of testing) for public-school teachers and students.

That coalition still exists, and charters continue to dwarf vouchers in both growth and overall size. But over the last two years, several ambitious Republican politicians trying to make a name for themselves—and distinguish themselves from Democrats on education—have gravitated back to vouchers. In 2011, more than 30 states introduced school voucher bills, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures. That was an increase of more than 300 percent from the previous year, when nine voucher bills were introduced.

Henig has identified three types of privatization: “pragmatic” privatization aims to force government to do a better job; “systemic” privatization represents a broad weakening or erosion in the government’s role; and “tactical” privatization is designed to advance the political interest of a party or candidate. While voucher advocates may be motivated by all three goals, tactical privatization appears to be fueling at least some of the current efforts, he says.

“Because of broader battles, there’s pressure on Republicans to more sharply differentiate themselves by aligning with pro-market, anti-government positions,” said Henig. “It makes for a clearer, sharper story line.”

Indeed, while the political confederacies surrounding vouchers have historically been complex—allying Democrats who view it as a social-justice issue with extreme right-wing politicians in some cases—recent debates have fallen along more traditional party lines.

Concerns about fraud

Accountability has long been an Achilles’ heel for voucher advocates. For years, schools in a Milwaukee program could receive hundreds of thousands in public funds each year if they met a few very minimal standards. Up until 2005, the primary requirements were that schools have a building occupancy permit from the city and enrolled students. They also had to meet the state’s definition of a non-public school, but that was “very nominal, and purposefully so,” said Tony Evers, the Wisconsin state superintendent.

Many participants in the program were established Catholic and Lutheran schools, but a significant number emerged only after the voucher program started. “You had these well-intended operators who had absolutely no idea about running a school,” said Evers.

In at least a few cases, the problems extended beyond naiveté. A convicted rapist founded one school, Alex’s Academics of Excellence. Despite the founder’s criminal record, Alex’s managed to attract families for several years, continuing to do so even after numerous evictions and allegations of illegal drug use on campus. At a second school, Mandella School of Science and Math, the principal—who also founded the school—used proceeds from state voucher payments to buy two Mercedes-Benz automobiles.

The state tightened up on accountability, requiring participating schools to earn pre-accreditation, among other changes. Between 2009 and 2012, a board within Howard Fuller’s institute at Marquette vetted new applicants. The board set a high bar, with only 13 of 103 prospective school operators making it through the approval process over that time period, or about 13 percent.

The pre-accreditation process “kept out scores of schools that would have failed,” said Evers.

Fuller and Evers believe low-income parents want what is best for their children. But they might still be enticed to a severely sub-par school by a slick marketing campaign—or out of desperation.

“A lot of the mom-and-pop school operators were reaching out to friends and relatives,” said Evers. “The marketing is as local as it can get.”

The future of vouchers in Louisiana

Louisiana’s new voucher program relies more on back-end than front-end accountability, a source of contention for critics who argue that it has opened the door to financial abuse and academic failure.

Although most of the schools are run by established entities like local archdioceses, red flags have already been raised about a few operators: A blogger reported that a self-proclaimed prophet and apostle is in line to receive hundreds of thousands of dollars in voucher payments for a school called Light City Christian Academy. The operator of another participating school, Conquering Word Christian Academy, is under investigation for FEMA fraud. And it’s unclear whether a third school, New Living Word, has enough teachers and space to serve the dozens of students it plans to accept through the voucher program.

(Officials at Conquering Word and New Living Word did not return calls seeking comment for this story. And when a reporter visited Light City Christian Academy school last week, officials said they did not have time to talk and that no one would be available for a phone conversation.)

State Superintendent John White said Conquering Word will not be allowed to accept any new students through the program this year. But students who attended in previous years through a New Orleans-specific voucher program will still be eligible for scholarships. Light City will enroll 80 students through the program, and New Living Word will enroll 165 (about half of the seats that school leaders requested). In the latter case, the school signed a memorandum of understanding addressing facilities concerns and authorizing quarterly site visits by state officials.

White said the accountability provisions impose a “moderate screen” on new school applicants and “extremely swift back-end consequences” for private schools that underperform.

However, White has refused to provide records on that screening process until after the school year is already under way. He said state officials rejected applications from 10 schools because they did not meet criteria laid down in the initial law. After developing additional regulations, they removed two others and reduced the number of seats available at several schools. With 119 private schools participating, that means the state approved about 90 percent of applicants—compared to 13 percent in Milwaukee, although in that city most participating schools were grandfathered in by the time the approval board was created.

Students receiving vouchers in Louisiana take the same standardized tests as public-school students. If a private school has at least 40 voucher students enrolled in tested grades (or at least 10 students per tested grade), the school’s overall performance must meet a certain threshold—the same threshold that public schools must meet to avoid closure or reconstitution—for it to continue accepting new voucher students.

This year, however, only about a quarter of participating schools will enroll more than 40 voucher students in tested grades; those schools encompass about 65 percent of the program’s enrollment. State officials say they anticipate the accountability provision will capture 85 percent of students by the program’s fourth year.

That’s too little, too late, some critics say. “The state needed to establish academic eligibility requirements [on] the front-end,” said Peter Reichard, projects manager at the Bureau of Governmental Research, an independent research organization in New Orleans. In a statement, BGR officials said, “Short of no accountability standards at all, it is difficult to imagine a lower standard of performance than what the proposed system offers.”

White argues that his oversight program relies on a healthy mixture of market forces and governmental oversight. “Responsible policy always tries to empower citizenry by not over-regulating, but at the same time by being unforgiving when it comes to failure,” he said, adding that the plan is to “regulate failure by not accepting failure.”

But in a sign that he might be bowing to pressure from skeptics, White said last week that he will likely seek to tighten requirements for prospective private-school operators in the state—regardless of whether they accept voucher students.

In the meantime, future voucher policy (as well as Gov. Bobby Jindal’s education legacy) may well be shaped by what happens on the ground in Louisiana this school year.

Henig said the issue will become more volatile for Jindal if “what comes in over the transom makes broad support of market principles and choice look irresponsible.”

Sarah Carr, a contributing editor at The Hechinger Report, is the author of Hope Against Hope, which tells the story of the New Orleans public schools post-Katrina. The book will be released by Bloomsbury Press in February 2013.

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  1. Louisiana ought to look towards the independent school regulations in Great Britain, in particular England, if it wants to learn quickly how to regulate a vibrant independent school sector. The independent schools of England, such as those in the Headmasters’ and Headmistresses’ Conference and the Girls’ Schools Association, are among the very best in the world, and families that could afford them have had the opportunity to give their children some of the best educations available. If combined sensibly with a state support system like Louisiana’s vouchers, the citizens of the Bayou State could find their children very well supported indeed.

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