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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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The school willing to accept the most voucher students -- 314 -- is New Living Word in Ruston, which has a top-ranked basketball team but no library. Students spend most of the day watching TVs in bare-bones classrooms. Each lesson consists of an instructional DVD that intersperses Biblical verses with subjects such chemistry or composition.

The Upperroom Bible Church Academy in New Orleans, a bunker-like building with no windows or playground, also has plenty of slots open. It seeks to bring in 214 voucher students, worth up to $1.8 million in state funding.

At Eternity Christian Academy in Westlake, pastor-turned-principal Marie Carrier hopes to secure extra space to enroll 135 voucher students, though she now has room for just a few dozen. Her first- through eighth-grade students sit in cubicles for much of the day and move at their own pace through Christian workbooks, such as a beginning science text that explains "what God made" on each of the six days of creation. They are not exposed to the theory of evolution.

If this is what vouchers have in store for the education of Louisiana’s primary and secondary students, it’s not unreasonable to fear that the quality of education in the state will deteriorate quickly. 

Worse yet, there are no real checks in the system to hold sub-par private schools – including religious institutions – accountable for the quality of education students receive. As LSU education professor David Kirshner tells AlterNet, Louisiana’s voucher program “does not require that private and charter schools that accept public funds be subject to the same scrutiny of standardized testing that was used to indict the public schools in the first place. So what we have in Louisiana can in no way can be counted as a push from worse to better. Rather it is only a push from public to private.” 

And in the low-quality schools Stephanie Simon describes, the program may very well be a push from better to worse.

4. Promotes Unequal Access to Educational Opportunities: In Louisiana, as in many other states, the quality of public education is largely dependent on whether or not any given student lives in an affluent, well-funded part of the state. Louisiana Believes supporters have picked up on the fact that most residents have noticed this inequality – and are insisting that the new plan will make education more equitable. In a “town hall meeting” featured on Louisiana’s Department of Education Web site, state school superintendent John White promises that “Louisiana Believes is about believing in the potential of all children,” while Governor Jindal and other advocates continue to make cynical, “common good” pleas to rally support.

Yet despite their “social justice” rhetoric, there is ample reason to believe that Louisiana Believes might actually increase inequality, not reduce it. In the first place, those mini-vouchers create a de facto public assistance program for students from high-income households, offering them financial support where there is little evident need. But that’s just a start. If Jindal’s popularity in the state continues to rise, he may have enough political capital to push his education agenda even further – to ensure that the wealthiest children receive just as much assistance as the poorest. If that happens, high-income families will pay a premium on top of their vouchers to secure slots at the very best private schools. Meanwhile, the poorest students will only have access to the cheapest – and worst – private schools, including many of the Catholic and evangelical Christian participant schools that dominate next year’s program. 

Another troubling component is the lack of a sliding scale for determining how large or small a student’s voucher will be. Under Louisiana’s new program, as long as families fit into the broad income requirement (about $60,000 or less in a family of four), the poorest students will get the same amount of tuition assistance as middle-income students. And in fact, since poorer areas of the state usually have lower per capita student spending than other parts of the state, the poorest students could receive less funding than their wealthier peers. Private vouchers are not permitted to spend more on vouchers than any given student’s per capita dollar amount; in poor areas, that means they can spend about $6,000 on private tuition, while in more affluent areas, that number spikes to about $10,000. That will give students who live in poor areas far fewer choices when it comes to selecting a private school.

 
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