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February 01, 2012
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Louisiana schools Superintendent John White has plenty of freedom to write the rules that will govern what may become the most sweeping voucher program in the nation, but he has little time to do the job. The legislature has given White until August 1 to figure out how to hold private schools accountable for their voucher students, but the more dogged critics of the superintendent and the voucher program want assurances now that no student will leave a lousy public school for a lousy private school.
In many ways, White is entering uncharted territory. At least fifteen states have passed laws establishing vouchers or tax credit scholarships, but just a handful now assess the academic or financial health of the private schools that participate. So it’s helpful to reflect first on what already sets Louisiana apart before suggesting more ways to make the voucher program accountable.
First, any private school accepting voucher students will have to submit an independent financial audit to the Louisiana Department of Education. Until now, the Florida Tax Credit Scholarship program had some of the most stringent fiscal regulations, requiring independent audits of private schools that received more than $250,000 in scholarship revenue. Few other state programs have anything of the sort.
Second, lawmakers put Louisiana in small company (currently consisting of Indiana, Ohio, and Wisconsin) when they required private schools to administer the same standardized test given to public school students.
But the law specifies only that the Louisiana Department of Education must report the overall results of those assessments of voucher students, not results school by school. Besides that, legislators charged the department with developing “an accountability system for participating students at participating schools.” White’s task is to flesh out what that important but nebulous assignment means.
Some are calling for participating private schools to be held to the same stringent accountability system as applies to public schools. But it’s not that easy. Should private schools that take in a single voucher-bearing student be held to the same testing and reporting (and, potentially, intervention) norms as schools that accept 1,000?
Three years ago, my Fordham colleagues proposed a sliding-scale of accountability for voucher and tax-credit scholarship programs, a common-sense approach that balances the decision-making power of the parent, the rights of the taxpayer, and the values of standards and transparency.
It says that private schools that take in relatively few public dollars should be treated more like private schools have traditionally been treated, i.e. mostly left alone. Those that rely heavily on public dollars, however, should be treated more like public schools.
Consider a school that enrolls 800 students, but just a few are there on vouchers. The Louisiana law’s current provisions are adequate for that circumstance: such a school will submit its voucher-pupil test results to the Department of Education, which will include them in an overall report on the voucher program’s academic progress. Require more than that, and such a school is likely to drop out of the program.
But where voucher students make up half of a school’s enrollment, it’s fair to require that the school release its own test results to the public (or that the state do this for it). The resulting transparency is apt to yield a reasonable degree of accountability.
Now consider a school that enrolls 1,000 students, 90 percent of whom are there with public vouchers. Such a school derives the overwhelming majority of its total budget from the taxpayer. Not a problem—but if the test results from this school show consistently poor performance, they may be grounds for the department to withdraw funding from it.
In each of these cases, the law already provides that the department can recover “any funds that the legislative auditor determines were expended in a manner inconsistent with state law or program regulations.” A good thing. But what if White got a private association to establish further benchmarking for private schools? Think what the National Association for Charter School Authorizers has done to get authorizers to voluntarily commit to principles and standards in their oversight of charters. The only outfit that today provides such oversight for private school choice is the Institute for the Transformation of Learning, run by Howard Fuller at Marquette University. Fuller brings a gatekeeping and oversight function to the Milwaukee and Racine choice programs and has assured more quality among private schools. Might Louisiana contract with a similar group to perform that sort of function?
These are questions White should consider, mindful that he’s considering them in the spotlight. His decisions are apt to have effects beyond the borders of the Pelican State. One assumes he will find a suitable middle ground (as we think the Fordham proposal did). The call to regulate private schools as if they were public is an extreme reaction coming largely from those who oppose vouchers in any form. But it’s equally unreasonable today to assume that parental choice and the marketplace are sufficient sources of accountability and quality control in K-12 education. Between those poles is where Louisiana—and the nation—ought to go.