“Leaving It Up To the Parents” in Louisiana

Media attention is beginning to cast rather a baleful light on Gov. Bobby Jidal’s efforts in Louisiana to exploit frustration with under-performing public schools in order to shift major public resources to the Republican Party’s conservative evangelical constituency.

As TPM’s Casey Michel reports, newspapers in Monroe and New Orleans have been taking a closer look at some of the schools benefitting from Jindal’s largest-in-the-country voucher program, forcing state officials to scramble for some sort of “additional vetting” of barebones evangelical schools with poor facilities and sectarian curricula. Here’s an excerpt from a piece in the New Orleans Times-Picayune:

In Ruston, the [Monroe] News-Star turned up some head-turning details about New Living Word, a school that has been approved for more voucher students than any other school in the state. The Rev. Jerry Baldwin, the school’s principal, told the newspaper that although he had neither the facilities nor the teachers to accommodate that many students, he was moving ahead “on faith” with the expansion plans.

The 122 students already on the school’s rolls, Baldwin told The News-Star, take their primary instruction by watching a DVD. The newspaper also reported that tuition for voucher students would be set at $8,500, just under the cap, while the rest of the school’s students are on a “tuition assistance program.”

That’s despite the fact that private schools in the program are not allowed to charge the state more than they do the rest of their students.

This was not good news for the state’s new superintendent, John White, already under pressure to bring stricter accountability measures to the program than those Jindal had proposed. White was scheduled to go before a state Senate committee a few days later. After The News-Star item, and just a day before the committee hearing, a member of White’s staff appeared before the Legislature and mentioned plans to do a second round of vetting for schools in the program, a step that hadn’t been mentioned before. The state Department of Education had already published a list of approved private schools and the number of seats each of them had available.

Why is the Boy Genius governor of Louisiana, reportedly on Mitt Romney’s short-list for the vice presidential nomination and currently touring the country demanding that President Obama be driven from office for incompetence, relying on such–to use a technical term–half-assed methods to determine which schools receive large taxpayer subsidies? Well, as internal emails obtained by the Monroe newspaper indicate, the original plan “left it up to the parents” to figure out which schools were worthy of public support. The sudden talk of “vetting” by the state is simply a reaction to all the bad publicity.

Now “leaving it up to the parents” may sound good to some conservatives who view public schools as indoctrination centers for secular-socialism. But what if they choose fundamentalist Bible academies for their kids on religious rather than educational grounds? Should other taxpayers have to support that choice?

The more the details come out about this fiasco in Louisiana, the more it becomes obvious the whole idea is to abolish any previously recognized concept of public education and just shovel dollars to the ground troops of the Christian Right. Last-minute efforts to cover up the scheme by hasty “vetting” of schools to make sure there are desks and text-books and teachers and that they are not gouging the state with suddenly high tuition rates aren’t enough to change that reality.

So in Mitt Romney’s plan to convert all federal education dollars to vouchers, will he similarly “leave it up to the parents” to figure out where the money goes, with similarly casual “vetting” of the beneficiaries? It’s a good question, which among many, many others, needs to be asked about Romney’s agenda for the country.

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.