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Some strings needed for state vouchers, Shrieveport Times, 2/4/12

posted Feb 5, 2012, 1:58 AM by Bill Duncan

Some strings needed for state vouchers

Governor's voucher system needs some quality assessment for public dollars transferred to private schools

Amid the fiery exchanges between bowed-up defenders of public education and the forces for systemic overhaul there are some legitimate issues that most of us in the middle need explaining before plunging into taxpayer-financed school-choice vouchers.

Much of the early concerns centered on the ability of students from low-income families to abandon not just failing schools but C-grade schools. That seems too broad. We want to strive for excellence but also appreciate that a "C" indicates that most children at a school are performing at grade level.

And while vouchers are meant to spur local districts to improve, what happens to public education with significant and rapid transfers of taxpayer funds from district schools to private operators?

Another discussion will be about establishing the income cut-off for these families whose children are assigned to underachieving schools. Jindal's proposal covers families earning up to 250 percent of the federal poverty level making about 86 percent of Louisiana's families eligible.

But what continues to give us more concern are the basic questions about the appropriateness of using taxpayer dollars at private schools and in particular what strings, if any, should be attached to those dollars.

Much was made of the recent remark by the head of the Louisiana Association of Educators that parents in poverty have "no clue" about how to choose the best school for their children as they "struggle and live day to day." The Jindal administration pounced on that remark as offensive. But it's also important to arm parents — regardless of income — with sufficient information to evaluate the best education options for their children.

The superintendent of education in Indiana told a Baton Rouge forum last week that a parental choice system is working in his state, a program that includes testing private schools that receive vouchers. Gov. Jindal countered that "parents are the best accountability program."

So after years of stressing accountability, are we to now drop that standard for private schools using public dollars to educate our children? Also, in a time when taxpayers are demanding heightened fiscal accountability from its government, turning lose millions of public dollars into schools without any accountability seems inconsistent.

Some sort of evaluation system might also be welcomed by private schools with long-standing traditions of quality education who soon may face greater competition. Depending on the final details of the governor's reform measures, creating a voucher system and streamlining the process for creating charter schools could create an explosion in both nonprofit and profit-driven private schools. How do we ensure quality in these new operators?

Again, we look forward to seeing the details of reform legislation the governor puts forth.