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.