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Posted at 05:00 AM ET, 07/13/2012

Louisiana voucher scheme fails to attract many students

A few months ago Louisiana started enacting a new law backed by Gov. Bobby Jindal that is one of the broadest attacks on public education in any state across the nation — if not the broadest.

Under the law more than half of the students in the state would be offered vouchers, the number of privately managed charter schools would be greatly expanded and preschoolers will be given letter grades — just to name a few of its provisions.

The scheme to offer publicly funded vouchers to some 450,000 students so that they could attend private schools in the state drew a criticism when it became clear that many of those private schools were run by Christian fundamentalists and did not have the resources to absorb the new students.

So what has happened with the plan? Below is education historian Diane Ravitch’s take on what happened with the voucher scheme. Ravitch is a research professor at New York University and author of the bestselling “The Death and Life of the Great American School System.” This first appeared on her blog.


By Diane Ravitch

Have you ever wondered what would happen if a state offered vouchers to more than half its students?

The Louisiana Department of Education just learned the answer to that question. It made the offer to 450,000 students. Not quite 9,000 students applied to enroll in the voucher program that begins in September. That’s 2% of the eligibles.

That means that 98% of the 450,000 students who were eligible declined to apply, according to a statistical analysis by Lance Hill of the Southern Institute of Education and Research.

Not exactly a stampede for the exits. No big rush to enroll in the little church schools that are supposedly better than the public schools that state Schools Superintendent John White supervises.

The State Department of Education tried to spin it differently. At first, they said that 10,000 applied, which far exceeded their expectations. But it turned out that 1,000 of the applicants already had vouchers in New Orleans. As usual, they were playing the media for headlines.

To date, the nonpublic schools of the state have offered to enroll only 5,000 students, so some decisions will have to be made about how to handle the mismatch.

Meanwhile Commissioner White announced some loose regulations about enrollment and financial reporting that will apply to the voucher schools, but nothing about academic expectations. According to the story in the New Orleans Times-Picayune , the statewide voucher program is supposed to be modeled along the lines of a New Orleans pilot program that has been running since 2008, with varied results:

“As originally envisioned in legislation championed by Gov. Bobby Jindal, the statewide expansion of vouchers this year would have mirrored the pilot program that’s been up  and running in New Orleans since 2008. In the pilot, students on vouchers take the state’s LEAP exams, but, unlike charter schools, they don’t face any particular consequences for poor results. Test scores at the roughly two dozen private schools already in the program have varied widely.”

It is not clear whether the private and religious schools that accept public money will be required to meet academic standards set by the state, whether the voucher students will take the state tests, and whether there will be “any particular consequences for poor results.”

One of the prime movers of the “reform” movement in Louisiana, Leslie Jacobs, complained a year ago that the voucher schools in New Orleans were getting poor results. She called for performance standards for the voucher schools. But it doesn’t seem likely to happen on a state level. The governor and the commissioner don’t want to interfere in the private schools, other than to send money. They want to hold the public schools accountable to standards, but allow students leave for nonpublic schools with no standards or accountability.

It is also unclear whether the state will expect the voucher schools to teach modern science or will be content to see thousands of public school students taught Creationism.

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