Another Step Toward “Backpack” Vouchers

Bobby Jindal’s in the news today for something other than his threat to leave a big chunk of Louisianans without the health insurance they are supposed to receive via the Affordable Care Act. There are growing alarums about the impact on public education of his steadily expanding no-strings school voucher program, as TPM’s Casey Michel reports:

The voucher program Louisiana is slated to employ is much broader than other states. The vouchers, worth up to $8,800 annually, will be offered to students of families making under $60,000 and who are currently enrolled in a public school in which at least 25 percent of students test below grade level. So far, about 6,000 students have applied to the approximately 5,000 slots currently available in the approved private schools across the state, according to The Shreveport Times.

The following school year, however, will see the implementation of “mini-vouchers,” in which all students at the aforementioned schools, regardless of their family’s income, will be eligible for a $1,300 stipend to pay for private-school classes and apprenticeships. The voucher system would thus open up to nearly half of the state’s public school students. Since the public schools will lose commensurate funding every time one of their students opt for a voucher, the state’s public school system could by some estimates lose up to $3.3 billion annually once the program is fully implemented.

In heading his state in the direction of universally available vouchers rationalized by public school failure, Jindal is not, of course, holding any of the private school beneficiaries accountable for results, or for common curricula, or, it appears, for much of anything. A big chunk of the money already out there is being snapped up by conservative evangelical schools with exotic and hardly public-minded curricular offerings, with the theory being that any public oversight would interfere with the accountability provided by “the market.” So if you want your kid to attend, at public expense, the Christian Nationalist Academy for Servant-Leader Boys & Fecund Submissive Girls, that’s okay by Bobby.

This should be of note to non-Louisianans, not only because other Republican-governed states are headed in the same direction, but because the basic idea of “strapping public funds to kids’ backs” and sending it wherever parents choose is at the heart of Mitt Romney’s education platform. Sure, the federal government’s share of overall K-12 funding remains relatively small, but if you add “backpack vouchers” to those being offered by states, you are taking a big leap towards entirely privatized education.

Both voucher proponents and some progressives who oppose public school choice tend to blur the lines and suggest that the only alternatives are “backpack” vouchers and traditional public schools. The charter public schools promoted by the Obama administration (and often supported by Republicans who can’t get vouchers enacted), however, aim precisely in the opposite direction from what Romney and Jindal are proposing, with increased accountability for educational results being the be-all and end-all of funding decisions, and more, not less, public oversight of how schools perform and what they teach. They don’t always operate this way, of course, which helps keep the essential distinction between public and private schools hazy.

However you feel about charter schools or any strategy for educational improvement beyond increased funding, however, it’s important to understand the fundamental attack on the very idea of public education that universal, no-strings, “backpack” vouchers pose. If where parents decide, for whatever reason (religious or educational), to spend their money is to become the only standard for use of public funds, then why bother having public schools at all? There will be eventually room for most children at a rapidly growing industry of conservative Christian madrassas hungry for taxpayer dollars and young minds and souls.

Ed Kilgore

Ed Kilgore is a contributing writer to the Washington Monthly. He is managing editor for The Democratic Strategist and a senior fellow at the Progressive Policy Institute. Find him on Twitter: @ed_kilgore.