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5 Ways Louisiana’s New Voucher Program Spells Disaster for Public Education

The state's new voucher plan could eventually cut public education funding in half.

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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 percent of 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,

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