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February 01, 2012
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Louisiana became the latest state to embrace the introduction of school vouchers, but the legislative moxie it showed should stimulate a new conversation about private school choice and accountability.
When lawmakers last week approved Gov. Bobby Jindal’s plan to award vouchers to low-income children, they also ordered state schools Superintendent John White to develop a system that holds participating schools accountable for the performance of their voucher students. Critics say this lacks specificity, but it’s almost revolutionary compared with most voucher regulations nationwide.
Louisiana’s law may be similar to a voucher program Indiana lawmakers approved last year in that it requires participating students to take the same assessments administered at public schools. But even voucher supporters in the Pelican State had a hard time defending against tougher accountability standards in a state known for its low-tolerance of poor-performing schools.
So now that low-income students in schools graded C through F have a greater array of public and private options available, this is a chance for White and the Department of Education to design what my Fordham colleagues have called “accountability, done right.”
The degree of scrutiny and potential consequences for poor performance should be proportional to the number of voucher students each private school accepts. The Fordham Institute in 2009 advocated a sliding scale of accountability, whereby regulations might be heightened for private schools that receive more public revenue.
In our collective debates, we all too flippantly refer to “voucher schools,” when in reality private schools that participate in most voucher programs rely more on private-paying students. Florida’s tax credit scholarship program, for example, shows that just one in five scholarship students make up the average enrollment at 1,100 private schools throughout the Sunshine State. But there are schools that get more than 90 percent of their revenues from the scholarship program. Those schools should be treated more like public schools, and it’s reasonable to hold them accountable for failing to meet established academic benchmarks, even if that means withdrawing them from the voucher program.
Conversely, private schools that receive much less in voucher revenue should be treated more like private schools. If all voucher students will have to take the same tests given at public schools, then their schools should submit their scores to an independent evaluator so that the public can at least judge the effectiveness of the program as a whole. Private schools that educate just a few voucher students out of a private-paying enrollment of hundreds should face no further scrutiny. Indeed, public disclosure of test scores, in this scenario, would divulge the identity of the voucher students. But test score results should be posted as voucher enrollments increase.
This is a common-sense approach Louisiana should consider, one that balances the decision-making power of the parent, the rights of the taxpayer, and the values of standards and transparency. Bobby Jindal has the spotlight now, and with it the ability to advance the debate away from its extreme poles. He has already proven himself a leader who can muster a comfortable majority of support for one of education reform’s most controversial efforts. Now he can take the conversation to its next stage.