Here is the basic Louisiana DOE program explanation page for its
"School Choice Pilot Program for Certain Students with Exceptionalities" for the large urban parishes of Louisiana
Oopponents of Republican Gov. Bobby Jindal’s sweeping private school voucher program, ruling that it is unconstitutional because it improperly diverts public state and local money intended for public schools to private institutions.
Exactly what will happen to the more than 4,900 students now receiving money for vouchers is unclear, though it doesn’t seem likely that they will have to return the cash. Expect an appeal. Still, Jindal and members of his education team, who unsuccessfully argued that they had set up the program by the constitutional book, are now going to have to rethink it.
SHOCKING: Bobby Jindal’s Vouchers Will Provide Over $700,000 Per Year To School Led by “Prophet, Apostle.” 38
Meet Leonard Lucas, a former, one-term Louisiana State Representative and erstwhile candidate for New Orleans City Council. When Mr. Lucas sent out a press advisory announcing his candidacy for City Council,here’s how The Times-Picayune reported the news:
Lucas, the founding pastor of Light City Church and a one-term state representative, sent out a statement riddled with grammatical errors saying he will formally announce his candidacy today at 1 p.m. at the shuttered Schwegmann’s Shopping Center on Bullard Road.
Published: Tuesday, July 24, 2012, 10:35 PM Updated: Tuesday, July 24, 2012, 11:06 PM
By Andrew Vanacore, The Times-Picayune
The state Board of Elementary and Secondary Education approved a new set of academic standards Tuesday for private schools participating in Louisiana's expanded voucher program. By a vote of 9-2, the 11-member panel, known as BESE, adopted a plan proposed by state Superintendent John White that will require private schools to hit roughly the same academic bar that public schools do in order to continue accepting more students through the program. The new standards apply to schools with 40 or more voucher students in grades that include standardized tests.
The plan sparked angry commentary from teachers union officials and heated debate among BESE members, with Lottie Beebe, from St. Martin Parish, and Carolyn Hill, from Baton Rouge, twice trying to put off the decision until White could come back with tougher standards. Hill compared the board's vote to Adam and Eve eating the forbidden fruit, warning that "evil is going to arise" from the board's decision.
Chas Roemer, a board member who also represents parts of Baton Rouge, pushed back in White's favor, calling the vote "one of our proudest moments as a board."
"We fall back on a couple of ideas," Roemer said. "Every child can learn, No. 1. No. 2, every child should be given that opportunity regardless of their wealth. No. 3, high standards lead to good results, period. This board without exception has held that line and will continue to hold that line."
Some left out
State officials announced Tuesday they had assigned roughly 5,600 voucher applicants to participating schools, out of a total of nearly 9,000. About 6,600 seats were available in 119 schools, but a mismatch between applicants and seats in certain grades and regions meant that some students got turned away, even with extra seats still open.
White said it's still possible that some of the 1,000 or so who didn't get assigned through the lottery will get into the program, since some successful applicants are likely to turn down the offer. And schools left with empty seats may decide to open others in grades with more demand.
The voucher program, part of a broader set of education initiatives championed by Gov. Bobby Jindal, has been the subject of pitched debate for months. Lawmakers gave White responsibility for coming up with a tougher set of standards for holding private schools in the program accountable. The plan approved by BESE satisfied many of the most vocal proponents of tighter standards, but not all.
The independent Bureau of Governmental Research released a report Monday criticizing White's plan as too soft, both for excluding schools with fewer than 40 voucher students from facing consequences and for setting such a low bar for those with 40 or more.
"Short of no accountability standards at all," the report reads, "it is difficult to imagine a lower standard of performance than what the proposed system offers. Yet the proposal also allows waivers in some circumstances."
White's plan requires that private schools with enough voucher students earn a performance score of at least 50 to keep accepting new students through the program. The score, based largely on exam results, will be based roughly on the same 150-point scale that Louisiana is implementing this year for public schools. Any score below 50 will be deemed "failing."
The state will publish test results for schools with fewer than 40 voucher program students, but won't automatically impose the same consequences. At the outset, White expects only about a quarter of the participating schools to hit the 40-student mark, but estimates the number will grow in future years.
Test scores aside, the program is also drawing concerns that state tax dollars could end up going to schools that reject evolution in favor of creationism. Zack Kopplin, a college student who gained notoriety in 2010 when he attacked a state law that critics saw as a backdoor endorsement of creationist ideas, turned up at the BESE meeting Tuesday with a list of schools in the voucher program that appear to promote a biblical interpretation of human origins.
Kopplin cited a line from the student handbook at Faith Academy, in Gonzalez, requiring students to "defend creationism through evidence presented by the Bible versus traditional scientific theory."
White's plan gives BESE responsibility for ensuring private schools "maintain a curriculum of quality at least equal to that prescribed for similar public schools," with the power to hand down penalties "including ineligibility to participate or ineligibility to accept new students."
But during a conference call Tuesday, White suggested that he would rely instead on the science portion of the state's LEAP exams to weed out schools that aren't teaching biology up to acceptable standards. "The test measures evolution," he said.
Jacobs applauds standards
Overall, White's accountability plan did please some of the most prominent skeptics. Sen. Mary Landrieu sent BESE President Penny Dastugue a letter dated Tuesday suggesting the board extend penalties for private schools that earn the equivalent of a D on the public school grading scale, something the board did not end up doing. But she continued, "I am encouraged by the criteria's strong emphasis on public reporting of performance data and the fact that there are consequences for nonpublic schools scoring below an established cutoff point."
Leslie Jacobs, a former BESE member, praised White's plan in her influential Educate Now! email blast for striking "the right balance between the need for public accountability and the different ways private schools will participate in the program."
Addressing the subject of schools with fewer than 40 students, Jacobs argued, "For these schools, the public and parents will know how students performed. If a school consistently fails to have their voucher students reach state standards, BESE can require a curriculum audit and determine continued participation."
Andrew Vanacore can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 504.826.3304.
How the GOP’s New Education Policy Embraces the Market and Abandons Objective Standards, The New Republic, 7/10/12
"No-strings vouchers" in Louisiana.
July 9, 2012 | 8:49 am
We all got a good laugh at the recent befuddlement (reported at TNR by Amy Sullivan) of a conservative Republican legislator from Louisiana who withdrew her support from Gov. Bobby Jindal’s school voucher program when she realized that its open door to public support for religious schools was not limited to those catering to Christians.
But the underlying principle of Jindal’s initiative—and arguably of Mitt Romney’s little-discussed proposal to convert the bulk of federal K-12 education dollars into vouchers—is no laughing matter. No-strings vouchers based on the idea that “the market” or the wishes of parents are an adequate or even ideal form of “educational accountability” could reflect a sharp U-turn in the standards-and-accountability trend in U.S. education that Republicans and conservatives until recently championed. Indeed, Jindal’s (and Romney’s?) agnosticism about the quality of schools receiving public funds represents an abandonment of the very idea of “public education” other than as a mechanism for subsidizing private choices.
What’s drawing attention in Louisiana is the realization that a lot of the schools benefitting from vouchers were poorly staffed and equipped, and offered not only sectarian instruction but questionable handling of educational basics. The state Department of Education, which was required by the enabling legislation to set up an “accountability system” for participating schools, is only now scrambling to “vet” them, primarily, it seems, as a response to bad publicity about a few obvious bad apples (some of which appear to have sprung into existence in response to the availability of vouchers).
But in the bureaucrats’ defense, they may have been faithfully executing Jindal’s stated conviction that “parents are the best accountability system we have.” If the idea is that a marketplace of parents empowered by vouchers can replace tests, standards, community expectations, and every other judge of educational excellence, then what business is it of state administrators to decide the Thief-in-the-Night Academy of the Apocalypse is unqualified to compete?
It should require no more than a few minutes thought to formulate some objections: Might parents have motives beyond a desire for the best possible education for their kids when they “vote with their [or rather, the taxpayers’] dollars” for a particular school, most obviously religious motives? And don't other citizens, besides the parents of a particular child, have a major stake in decisions about schooling?
But aside from these considerations, the most striking thing about the parental rights revolution represented by no-strings vouchers is the abandonment of any effort to identify objective measurements of educational success. And this is particularly shocking coming at a moment when the states are supposedly in the process of implementing a great leap forward in objective standards via the Common Core Standards initiative that 48 states signed onto in 2009.
Why is this happening, in Lousiana or anywhere? Some of the blame must be assumed by hard-core defenders of traditional public schools, who often lump together charter public schools with private-school vouchers as minor variations on a single heretical theme. While the charter public school movement has had its own failings, it fundamentally aims in the opposite direction—accountability to the public for clearly articulated and specific educational achievement goals—than voucher systems that make competition an end in itself.
...................go to the Link
The scarcity of teachers and classroom space at New Living Word School in Ruston has quickly become a cautionary tale for the state's expanding school voucher program.
Rusty Costanza/The Times-PicayuneLawmakers entrusted Louisiana education Superintendent John White and the Board of Elementary and Secondary Education with establishing an accountability system for the state's expanded voucher program. That hasn't happened.
The 122 students at New Living Word get most of their instruction via DVD, the school's principal told the News-Star in Monroe. And the school has neither facilities nor staff to handle the more than 300 voucher students the state Department of Education OK'd for it, he said.
In response to criticism, state schools Superintendent John White said his department always planned to further vet New Living Word and other schools seeking voucher students. But Mr. White's own email messages contradict his claim.
Besides, he's ignoring an obvious question: Why didn't his staff see from the get-go that New Living Word was a poor candidate for vouchers?
The lack of judgment is breathtaking, but the bigger problem is that Mr. White's office has yet to come up with standards for the program.
That is unfathomable. When lawmakers agreed to expand the voucher program in the spring, they ordered the Department of Education to come up with an accountability system for it. Mr. White and the Board of Elementary and Secondary Education owe it to students and to the public to put strong financial and academic rules in place.
And they need to do so immediately, since the school year will be starting in August.
Emails Reveal Louisiana Voucher Backpedaling
"The News-Star obtained a series of emails between White, Gov. Bobby Jindal’s spokesman Kyle Plotkin and Jindal’s policy adviser Stafford Palmieri in which White attempted to counter the growing questions about the oversight of the voucher program. The questions began after the News-Star visited the New Living Word School which has no library and filters lessons through Bible-based DVDs. The Times-Picayune also pointed out that the school would charge voucher students more than the other current students, which is not allowed under the new legislation."
An editorial writer for the New Orleans Times-Picayune wrote a scathing critique of Governor Bobby Jindal’s reform legislation: the haste with which it was adopted, the lack of forethought, the approval of schools to receive voucher students even though they had no facilities, the diversion of public money to private schools, the lack of accountability for private schools getting public money, and Jindal’s refusal to allow tax breaks for those who make donations to public schools (tax breaks only for contributions to private schools). The editorial expressed appreciation for the fact that legislators were starting to ask tough questions, but concluded it would have been better had they asked tough questionsbefore they voted approval for the legislation, rather than afterwards.
Not brooking any dissent, the Governor’s communication director responded with an email. His defense to every question raised: Look how terrible the academic performance of students in public schools is. Look how many received a D or an F last year (44 percent). Look how terrible the American education system is. Look how many nations got higher test scores than the U.S. in the latest international test. Companies that move to Louisiana can’t find skilled workers. Children get only one chance. We can’t wait.
.....go to the Link for the rest
By Gregory Kristof
Sectarian feuds reignited in Louisiana last week when lawmakers debated whether to provide federal funding for Muslim and Christian schools under a new education bill, according to Think Progress.
Under the bill, called the Minimim Foundations Program and passed into law last week by the Louisiana legislature, students at failing public high schools can use government-paid vouchers to enroll in alternate schools -- including those that are private or religiously affiliated. The program represents a bold endeavor by the state to privatize public education.
Stakes escalated last week when, to the frustration of some lawmakers, the Islamic School of Greater New Orleans applied for federal funds under the voucher program. Republican state Rep. Kenneth Havard objected to the Islamic School's request for 38 government-paid student vouchers, saying he opposed any bill that "will fund Islamic teaching," the Associated Press reports.
"I won't go back home and explain to my people that I supported this," he said.
"It'll be the Church of Scientology next year," Democratic state Rep. Sam Jones told AP.
The Islamic School of Greater New Orleans withdrew its request for vouchers before the bill went to vote.
Critics have pointed out that while the potential diversion of federal funds toward a Muslim school generated controversy among legislators, the state was already slotted under the new voucher program to provide millions of dollars to schools run by Christian churches.
The New Living Word School near Ruston, for example, is a church-run school that had been approved for $2.7 million of taxpayer money under the Minimum Foundations Program. The New Living Word School was granted permission to take 315 school vouchers-- the largest number for any school -- even though it has no library, and students reportedly spend most of their day watching Biblically-themed DVDs.
Republican Gov. Bobby Jindal is also facing scrutiny, as two groups havefiled lawsuits that challenge the governor's bold education package, which calls for using public school dollars to fund private and parochial school vouchers. If passed, Jindal's program would fund tuition for poor and middle-class children at more than 120 Louisiana private schools, including small, Bible-based church schools. Public schools, however, would lose a portion of state funding every time a student moves from a public to private school under the program.
The controversy over the New Living Word School and the Islamic School of Greater New Orleans comes at a time in which religious and secular tensions are running high in the South.
In neighboring Mississippi, Gov. Phil Bryant recently advocated for non-denominational school prayer "at some point." The Republican Methodist governor said in his speech to about 300 high school students that school prayer would "let people know there is a God." He said that although he would not take legal action to pursue the issue, he hopes that one day school prayer would be common.
In South Carolina, the Freedom From Religion Foundation and one of its local members filed a lawsuit last week against School District Five of Lexington and Richland counties over a district policy that sets benediction and invocation practices for school events.
The plaintiff, Matthew Nielson, filed the lawsuit after an initial letter of complaint voicing constitutional concerns was rejected by the district. The legal complaint indicts the district for "excessive governmental entanglement with religion."
This rebellion against the alleged intrusion of faith in schools raises the question of whether state funding for the New Ward School and other faith-based schools under Louisiana's new program will stoke similar fears of mingling between church and state.
Late last month, the state of Louisiana unveiled a new school voucher program, joining 14 other states that have recently increased the availability of vouchers to fund private school tuition with public dollars.
This latest pet project of popular Republican Governor Bobby Jindal, called Louisiana Believes, is now regarded as the most extensive voucher system in the United States -- out-privatizing even the state of Indiana, where nearly 60 percent of the state’s students are eligible for vouchers. By eroding caps on family income levels, and thereby providing voucher assistance to both low- and middle-income families, Indiana’s plan aimed to remake public education in the state more extensively than any voucher system in US history – until now.
Like Indiana’s program, Louisiana’s new voucher plan is so wide in scope that it could eventually cut the state’s public education funding in half. But in a number of crucial ways, the Louisiana model works even harder to destroy public education than Indiana’s program does. Already approved by the Louisiana state legislature, the program sets an alarming precedent for undermining public education in other states. Here are five of its most dangerous components:
1. Few Caps or Restrictions after Year 1: The program is modest in scope for the 2012/2013 academic year, but drastically expands after that. In this upcoming year, 120 private schools and a few high-performing public schools (most of them in Southeastern Louisiana) will be opened to voucher applications. About 5,100 students from low- and middle-income families previously enrolled in low-performing schools, along with entering kindergartners whose families meet the income requirements, will be eligible to apply for the euphemistically named “scholarships” this year.
But things will change drastically during the 2013/2014 academic year. Vouchers that cover private school tuition will be expanded state-wide for middle- and low-income students from low-performing schools. There will no longer be any required caps on the number of vouchers that can be awarded. About 380,000 children -- well over half of Louisiana’s 700,000 school children -- will become voucher-eligible next year. Again, in the nation, only Indiana rivals this program in scope.
But Louisiana’s voucher program will take things a step further, still: In the fall of 2013, the state will begin to offer voucher assistance to students from families of all incomes. These $1,300 “mini-vouchers” will be available to all students enrolled in low-performing schools, and will be used to fund a wide range of educational activities, including online courses, religious study, private instructors, vocational apprenticeships and independent studies. (State Republicans consider this a “political compromise,” as they would have liked to award full tuition scholarships, not just mini-vouchers, to students from households of all income levels.)
Though the stated purpose of these mini-vouchers is to provide “remediation” for students who are struggling with core courses like English or mathematics, in practice, the new system will chip away at the state’s public education infrastructure, drawing vast amounts of funding out of the public schools and putting it into private hands. And in the process, it will shore up profits for long-time opponents of public education like testing-giant Pearson and online course-provider K-12, Inc., which will be operating said “remediation” programs.
2. Huge Deductions from Public Education Funding: While other states often try to hedge about the impact voucher programs have on public education funding, Louisiana has made no attempt to hide that its new program directly defunds public education. Because Louisiana is a solidly conservative – and solidly anti-union – state, pro-voucher advocates faced fairly little political pressure to support public schools, and had no real political incentive for hiding the fact that these vouchers steal money from public education.
Just how much money are we talking about? According to David Kirshner, professor of educational theory, policy and practice at Louisiana State University, “Students who leave can carry…the totality of their public school funding to their new private or charter school.” This means that for each voucher student who leaves the public system, the state will now subtract the cost of tuition or up to that student’s per capita expenditures – an average of about $8,800 – from public education funding. If all 380,000 students that will be eligible for vouchers in 2013 get them, that could mean a net loss of $3.3 billion to Louisiana’s public schools for that academic year. Every mini-voucher’s cost – $1,300 or less – will also be deducted from public education spending.
No other state in the nation has implemented a voucher program that penalizes public education to this degree and with this much transparency.
There’s no doubt about the eventual effect withdrawing so much funding will have on public education in Louisiana. It’s a mechanism, Kirshner tells AlterNet, to bring about the “inevitable degradation of the public system.” Of course, the likelihood that all eligible students will flee their public schools in one fell swoop is small -- but the program nevertheless clears a pathway for steadily defunding public schools in just a few years time. As funding dries up, these schools will have fewer and fewer resources – and fewer staff – to help students succeed on standardized tests. This, in turn, will lead to more schools being designated as “low-scoring” over time -- and the number of students eligible for vouchers will inevitably grow, as well.
3. High Number of Religious School Recipients: In 2002, the US Supreme Court ruled that Cleveland’s school voucher program did not violate First Amendment protections against the establishment of religion – despite the fact that almost every voucher student in the city used those vouchers to attend private Catholic schools. As William Marshall, law professor at UNC-Chapel Hill, explained to AlterNet, “The Cleveland case suggested that as long as vouchers were available to a broad range of schools, not just religious schools – that is, as long as the program didn’t really single out religious schools for special treatment,” they do not violate the first amendment.
This ruling set a wide precedent for using state money to pay for private religious education, just as Louisiana is doing under its new plan. Nationwide, according to Americans United for the Separation of Church and State, a staggering “80 percentof students attending private schools are enrolled in religious institutions.” And as Americans United notes, “[T]here is no way to prevent publicly funded vouchers from paying for these institutions’ religious activities and education.” In short, regardless of what the Court intended, citizens are indeed paying for religious education when vouchers are in play.
Though specific data is not available on the number of private religious academies in Louisiana, it seems reasonable to assume that the state’s percentage of religious schools meets or surpasses the national average, given Lousiana’s status as a Bible belt state. And if this year’s small-scale program is any indication of where Louisiana’s vouchers will most likely be used, religion is a key component: based on their names alone, it is clear that most of the participating schools are Christian academies. (Though there are a number of excellent secular private schools in the state, few if any slots at these schools are awarded to voucher students in practice.)
Even leaving First Amendment concerns aside, the dominance of Christian school options raises many questions about how this shift to religious academies will affect the quality of Louisiana education. “Smaller, less prestigious” and often struggling religious schools are more likely to have spots open for voucher students, Stephanie Simon reports for Reuters. She writes,
If this is what vouchers have in store for the education of Louisiana’s primary and secondary students, it’s not unreasonable to fear that the quality of education in the state will deteriorate quickly.
Worse yet, there are no real checks in the system to hold sub-par private schools – including religious institutions – accountable for the quality of education students receive. As LSU education professor David Kirshner tells AlterNet, Louisiana’s voucher program “does not require that private and charter schools that accept public funds be subject to the same scrutiny of standardized testing that was used to indict the public schools in the first place. So what we have in Louisiana can in no way can be counted as a push from worse to better. Rather it is only a push from public to private.”
And in the low-quality schools Stephanie Simon describes, the program may very well be a push from better to worse.
4. Promotes Unequal Access to Educational Opportunities: In Louisiana, as in many other states, the quality of public education is largely dependent on whether or not any given student lives in an affluent, well-funded part of the state. Louisiana Believes supporters have picked up on the fact that most residents have noticed this inequality – and are insisting that the new plan will make education more equitable. In a “town hall meeting” featured on Louisiana’s Department of Education Web site, state school superintendent John White promises that “Louisiana Believes is about believing in the potential of all children,” while Governor Jindal and other advocates continue to make cynical, “common good” pleas to rally support.
Yet despite their “social justice” rhetoric, there is ample reason to believe that Louisiana Believes might actually increase inequality, not reduce it. In the first place, those mini-vouchers create a de facto public assistance program for students from high-income households, offering them financial support where there is little evident need. But that’s just a start. If Jindal’s popularity in the state continues to rise, he may have enough political capital to push his education agenda even further – to ensure that the wealthiest children receive just as much assistance as the poorest. If that happens, high-income families will pay a premium on top of their vouchers to secure slots at the very best private schools. Meanwhile, the poorest students will only have access to the cheapest – and worst – private schools, including many of the Catholic and evangelical Christian participant schools that dominate next year’s program.
Another troubling component is the lack of a sliding scale for determining how large or small a student’s voucher will be. Under Louisiana’s new program, as long as families fit into the broad income requirement (about $60,000 or less in a family of four), the poorest students will get the same amount of tuition assistance as middle-income students. And in fact, since poorer areas of the state usually have lower per capita student spending than other parts of the state, the poorest students could receive less funding than their wealthier peers. Private vouchers are not permitted to spend more on vouchers than any given student’s per capita dollar amount; in poor areas, that means they can spend about $6,000 on private tuition, while in more affluent areas, that number spikes to about $10,000. That will give students who live in poor areas far fewer choices when it comes to selecting a private school.
Furthermore, the program will necessarily increase inequality by diminishing public school funding even though, “not all students can or will leave,” as Kirshner points out. “Students with special needs cannot leave, because unlike public schools, privates and charters are not obligated to provide special education services. So public schools will be left with the hardest to educate students, yet they will have the same per student budget to work with as is provided to private and charter schools.”
Ultimately, Kirshner believes that all of these factors will result in a system in which “...the gap between the middle class and the poor will increase as the poor are left with less and less educational opportunity. In this way, the agenda of the ultra-wealthy to diminish the middle-class can proceed unimpeded. For we judge our own economic well-being in relative terms. With the floor of the impoverished class sinking down, the middle-class will hardly notice the erosion of its own economic standing.”
No child left behind, indeed.
5. Undermines Teachers: In his town hall video, superintendent John White makes the claim that Louisiana Believes is also about “empowering” teachers. But there is next to no evidence that this is actually true. As more and more students flee the public system, more and more unionized teachers (no longer needed in the new economy of education) will inevitably lose their jobs – possibly tens of thousands of them. In private schools, teachers will not have tenure rights or other protections. Instead, firing will operate according to the rules of private industry in the state; teachers will be fired at-will.
Unless worker “empowerment” in Louisiana now means de-professionalization, lower wages, mass teacher firings and loss of basic tenure rights, it’s hard to imagine how Louisiana’s privatization plan could empower teachers at all. Rather, the plan serves a right-wing agenda that demonizes teachers and fights against their unions as a matter of course. Moreover, it will continue to tie teacher “accountability” in public schools to standardized test scores -- without insisting that private schools and their teachers are beholden to the same measures.
It’s no wonder then that the teachers unions have unilaterally opposed the legislation – and they haven’t stopped fighting against it. Just this week the unions mounted two lawsuits, asking the courts for a temporary injunction to halt ongoing implementation of the program; they are calling for the legislation to be declared unconstitutional on the grounds that the bill was rushed and legislators did not fully understand the implications of what they were voting for.
“The passage of these laws has elevated legal challenges to acts of civic responsibility,” Louisiana Federation of Teachers president Steve Monaghan told The Town Talk. “By cramming so many objectives into just two bills, public comment and debate were stifled. Legislators were given little information about the bills, and appeared intimidated into passing them without adequate debate and oversight.”
Though Governor Jindal and company have already declared victory, in the eyes of teachers and activist groups this battle for Louisiana’s children is far from over.
Kristin Rawls is a freelance writer whose work has also appeared in the Christian Science Monitor, GOOD Magazine, Religion Dispatches, Killing the Buddha, Global Comment and elsewhere online.
The debates rage
Only a few months ago, two Jefferson Parish schoolteachers raged a spirited debate about charter schools with me. They were against them.
“They are destroying public education,” one said to me as they departed.
That comment – one I’ve heard repeatedly in the past few years as charter schools have proliferated in Orleans Parish – perplexed me because it contains a misleading assumption. It implies that charter schools aren’t public schools. They are public schools: They’re simply a new model of taxpayer-supported school, one that’s slowly transforming a famously failing public school system.
That conversation came to mind recently when Gov. Jindal signed into law radically new policies that really do have the potential of destroying public education – at least the old method of doing it.
These days, charter schools are a quaint addition to the public school landscape compared to this new age of reform. Fed up with the status quo, education reform has swung to an opposite extreme and some of the changes appear to be less about educational quality than about political ideology and religious beliefs.
Changes to teacher tenure policies may do more for improving schools than anyone could foresee. However, sending thousands of children to religious schools on taxpayer-funded vouchers reads like a conservative strategy to put “God back in schools,” as was the cry after forced school prayer was found to be unconstitutional.
The new policy allows low-income parents to take state money and enroll children in “private” schools. But the reality is “private” means “religious” the majority of the time, because upscale private schools are far too expensive – and sometimes exclusive – for low-income parents to manage. Only religious schools – Catholic schools – in the New Orleans area are affordable enough for a voucher to cover the cost of an education.
The argument for vouchers reminds me of the new creationism argument. When the religious conservative drive to teach creationism in schools couldn’t get passed, the general consensus that religious education belongs in church, not taxpayer-supported schools, advocates changed tactics and semantics.
Opponents say that using taxpayer money to educate students in religious schools is a violation of the separation of church and state doctrine. But as conservatives have gained influence in state legislatures, voucher programs have spread across the nation, despite the fact that there is little to no evidence that non-public schools provide a better education.
Taxpayers can only hope that non-public schools of all varieties will use their hard-earned money for strong academic instruction and not for other purposes. Since there will be little public oversight, the quality of such schools will have to be accepted on the basis of faith.