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.