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Bobby Jindal school voucher plan worries watchdog group, Times-Picayune, 3/14/12

posted Mar 14, 2012, 7:18 AM by Bill Duncan

By Andrew Vanacore, The Times-Picayune

Gov. Bobby Jindal's bid to expand the use of private-school vouchers statewide could damage public education in Louisiana and leave some students in worse schools than those they already attend, warns a new report from the Bureau of Governmental Research, a New Orleans-based nonprofit group.
View full sizeGerald Herbert, The Associated PressLouisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal is applauded by legislators during the opening session of the 2012 Louisiana Legislature on Monday.

The report is another slap at Jindal's proposal from the middle ground in Louisiana's debate about education reform. It's been no surprise that teachers unions, local school boards and superintendents have attacked the idea. But the breadth of the proposed voucher program, and the fact that public education dollars would pay for it, has drawn fire from a broader range of groups. They've argued that private schools should face stricter accountability if they're going to accept taxpayer money.

BGR's report follows repeated calls for greater accountability from Leslie Jacobs, a former state official and champion of the same charter-school movement that Jindal is looking to expand along with vouchers. The group Citizens for 1 Greater New Orleans, another centrist group, raised the same concerns in an open letter this month, even as it endorsed the rest of Jindal's agenda. TheLouisiana Budget Project, a Baton Rouge nonprofit group, gave the plan an "F" in the area of accountability.

Having reviewed BGR's report Tuesday, state Superintendent John White argued that restricting the program any further would leave students in some districts without access to better schools. As for holding private schools accountable, he pointed out that Jindal's proposal gives the state board of education leeway to set standards.

In the governor's plan, any student enrolled in a public school rated C or below from a family earning less than two and a half times the poverty line would be eligible. The state and local tax dollars that go to public schools on a per-pupil basis would follow any child that chooses to attend a participating private school. Technically, about 380,000 students would be eligible, though state officials expect only a few thousand would sign up initially.

Although every voucher student would take state exams, the proposed legislation does not spell out any concrete academic benchmarks that private schools would have to meet, a fact BGR and other critics see as worrisome.

"Under the proposed program, a student could use a voucher to transfer from an average-quality public school to a low-quality private school with no track record or qualifications," the group's report reads. "The student's academic performance could decline, and the state would impose no penalties on the school. And taxpayers would foot the bill for all of it."

BGR is recommending the program be limited to students already attending or heading into schools rated D or F. The group also calls for excluding private schools that can't outperform the public schools from which they draw voucher students, arguing, "The state should establish appropriate academic eligibility standards and mandate the rigorous testing needed to determine whether a school meets them."

Finally, BGR recommends paying for vouchers out of the state's general fund, rather than the pool of dollars set aside for public education, known as the Minimum Foundation Program. If the so-called MFP, a combination of state and local tax dollars, has to be touched at all, BGR recommends using only the state portion to avoid cutting too heavily into local school budgets.

Andrew Vanacore can be reached at avanacore@timespicayune.com or 504.826.3304.