Louisiana Students Can Vouch For This: They Don’t Need More Choices, Just Better Ones

St. Rita’s Catholic School in New Orleans, Monday, Aug. 24, 2015. Photo: Cheryl Gerber for The Hechinger Report

When it comes to schools, private doesn’t necessarily mean better.

That’s the finding from a recent evaluation of the Louisiana Scholarship Program for families who send their children to private schools – the voucher program.

In its first two years, the program had “a negative impact” on students’ academic achievement, most clearly in math, according to Jonathan Mills, Anna Egalite, and Patrick Wolf. The researchers found that students who took the vouchers to attend a private school did worse than those who applied for a scholarship but didn’t receive it.

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Louisiana’s continual low ranking near the bottom of most reliable national assessments of academic performance can’t be blamed on the public schools alone. How education advocates respond to the voucher report will provide insight into where their loyalties lie – voucher policy or parents.

The American Federation for Children reports there are 21 voucher programs, 16 scholarship tax credit programs, one education savings account program, and two individual tuition tax credit of significant size. Prior to this particular study, the relatively small number of studies that have employed experimental designs to evaluate voucher programs have found small, positive effects on academic achievement.

The stakes are high in Louisiana. At 19 percent, Louisiana ranks third in the nation in the percentage of students enrolled in private schools. In New Orleans, 25 percent of the school-age population attends private schools — the highest in the nation.

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Tax breaks make it easier for upper and middle-income families in Louisiana to have options; families with incomes at or below 250 percent of the federal poverty line can participate in the Louisiana Scholarship Program as tax policy burdens low-income families.

As reported by the Louisiana Budget Project, “Households with incomes below $32,000 per year pay an average 10 percent rate in state and local taxes, the top 1 percent (those who earn above $471,000 per year) pay just 4.2 percent. Middle-income families – who make between $32,500 and $50,000 per year, pay a 9.5 percent tax rate.” On top of an overall regressive tax structure, Louisiana like other states offer taxpayers a deduction for educational expenses (up to $5000 in the LA).

The more money you make the more educational options you’re afforded by Louisiana.

With their selective enrollments, private schools are made both exclusive and affordable for the middle and upper classes. But again, the state doesn’t rank near the bottom among its peers because of public schools alone. Louisiana ranked between 43 and 49 on various assessments on the most recent National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP), which measures the performance of a representative sample from students attending public, private, Bureau of Indian Education schools, and Department of Defense schools in each state.

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Private schools may not technically be public, but there is a public interest in improving schools in the sector. Because of the pervasiveness of private and parochial schools and because of built-in income inequality, a case for vouchers can easily be made.

However, that argument can’t turn a blind eye to low performance as well as other forms of inequality. In a statement reacting to the research on the voucher program, president of the Louisiana Federation for Children Ann Duplessis said, “The program affords low-income families with the same opportunity as more affluent parents – the financial resources to send their child to the school of their choice. Minorities represent 88.6 percent of all Louisiana Scholarship Program students.”

Actually, many private schools that educate middle to high-income families – including the one I send my child to – chose not to participate in the scholarship program, and many of those schools have small percentages of low-income students. In addition, the research shows that students who sought out a voucher but didn’t receive it actually performed better in their public institution. So what’s the better option?

A linchpin in education choice advocates’ arguments for vouchers is that if schools have to compete for parents, then competition will naturally raise the bar of quality among all schools. But because voucher advocates don’t rigorously scrutinize the assumption that private is better, backers’ dogmatic defense of the voucher program could lead to an increase in the number of low-performing schools in the marketplace. No voucher program should subsidize low-performing schools.

If education advocates really want to create quality options for all parents, they must aggressively weed out schools that aren’t adding value to the menu of schools afforded to them. We must weed out poor performing schools, not eliminate private ones.

The study’s researchers found encouragement from the voucher program’s “back-end accountability provisions,” that can expel schools from continuing in the program due to poor performance. However, more can be done on the front end in making sure schools have the capacity to accept students and accelerate learning. If state officials did their due diligence in the beginning, many of the schools currently in the program wouldn’t be. Officials can’t put students out of the frying pan and into the fire. Consequently, we need a higher grade of school to participate in the program. A rigorous recruitment and inspection program must be created. And families need advocates to call out supposedly good schools that opt out.

I participated on a panel discussion sponsored by the report’s publisher, The Education Research Alliance for New Orleans. Panelist Scott Richard, director of the Louisiana School Boards Association, pointed to a “time of scarce resources.” (The scholarship program’s funding existence outside of the constitutionally protected Minimum Foundation Program makes it very susceptible).

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We need strategies to improve – not eliminate – every sector in education. Funding for public primary and secondary schools is so ubiquitous that we don’t consider students as receiving a grant, scholarship or award, but that’s what it is.

If private and parochial schools want public money, they must be held to an even higher standard than their public counterparts to prevent what the research suggests may be happening.

To whom much is given, much is required. A private school must continuously prove it can handle the responsibility of educating the public and using its money. Real advocates will honestly inform parents that private doesn’t mean better and that they don’t necessarily need more choices — just better ones.

[Cross-posted at The Hechinger Report]

Andre Perry

Andre Perry is the founding dean of urban education at Davenport University in Grand Rapids, Mich. and the author of The Garden Path: The Miseducation of a City (2011).