Published Online: May 30, 2008

Voucher Plan for New Orleans Clears Another Hurdle

New Orleans families, who have seen a dramatic increase in public school choice since Hurricane Katrina hit in 2005, may soon get even more publicly funded options, under a plan to offer private school vouchers that has built momentum in recent weeks.

With strong backing from Republican Gov. Bobby Jindal, versions of the measure have passed the House and two key Senate committees. The Senate finance committee approved the plan today on a 6-4 vote, following its passage by that chamber's education committee on May 22. It could reach the Senate floor as soon as next week.

The $10 million proposal would permit up to 1,500 New Orleans students in low-performing public schools to receive vouchers to attend secular or religious private schools next fall.

The Crescent City is home to an especially large supply of nonpublic schools, due in part to the historically strong Roman Catholic presence in the area and to deep-seated frustrations among many families with the city’s long-troubled public schools.

Mixed Messages?

The damage caused by Katrina and the displacement of New Orleans’ population have taken a toll on its nonpublic schools, especially Catholic schools, which enroll the majority of students not in public education.

The Archdiocese of New Orleans oversees 39 schools in the city serving an estimated 15,000 students, down from about 19,000 prior to Katrina. Nineteen archdiocesan schools in the city have not reopened since the storm. The archdiocese, which long has favored vouchers, has said it would make 500 seats available in its schools next fall to accommodate participating students.

State Sen. Ann Duplessis, a New Orleans Democrat who is a leading proponent of the voucher plan, said Katrina’s destruction brings an opportunity to think anew about education in the city, and not just for public schools.

“Now we are in a position to test new and different things,” she said. “People ask, ‘Why not just wait until we see what happens [in the public system]?’ … Every year we don’t do something or try something new is a year that we could potentially lose a child.”

But some critics argue that with all the changes afoot—including a huge influx of charter schools and the emergence of a whole set of schools run by the state’s Recovery School District—this is no time for vouchers.

“I hate to see what appears to be mixed messages with the voucher system,” said Scott S. Cowen, the president of Tulane University, in New Orleans, and a prominent voice in efforts to reinvent the city’s public school system. “We’re right in the midst of rebuilding the entire school system, and I actually think we’re making some pretty good progress.”

Mr. Cowen argues that the $10 million would be better spent helping the public schools, and that enacting vouchers “might show some lack of confidence in what we’re doing.”

Steve Monaghan, the president of the Louisiana Federation of Teachers, an affiliate of the American Federation of Teachers, voiced similar concerns: “Why are we doing this … in a district that has more school choice now than anywhere on planet Earth?”

High Priority

Debates over vouchers are an annual ritual in the Louisiana legislature, but analysts say several factors may well tip the balance in their favor this year. Perhaps most significant is that Gov. Jindal, who took office in January, has made it a high priority. Also, newly imposed term limits have led to major shifts in the makeup of the state legislature.

The current Senate bill would provide up to about $6,300 in tuition assistance for students in grades K-3. That figure is about the same as the per-pupil costs for the city’s archdiocesan schools. In future years, the voucher aid could continue to pay tuition for those students in higher grades.

To be eligible, children would need to come from families with income that does not exceed 2.5 times federal poverty guidelines, or about $53,000 for a family of four, based on the Senate bill.

The voucher plan comes as New Orleans’ nonpublic schools have faced challenges in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina.

This academic year, the city’s nonpublic schools enrolled roughly 18,500 students, a drop of about 7,500 from before the storm, according to the Louisiana Department of Education. That compares with about 33,000 in the city’s public schools.

The decision not to reopen 19 Catholic schools was driven by the post-Katrina drop in the city’s population and a desire to make more efficient use of “financial and human resources,” said Sarah Comiskey, a spokeswoman for the Archdiocese of New Orleans.

Capacity Questions

Meanwhile, St. Paul’s Episcopal School, an independent pre-K-8 school with 125 children, now enrolls about half as many students as before the storm.

“St. Paul’s was under 8 feet of water [after Katrina],” said the head of school, Merry P. Sorrells. She cited the displacement of families as the main reason for the enrollment decline.

Ms. Sorrells said she’s not sure whether St. Paul’s would participate in the voucher program if it were to be approved.

“I think everyone is waiting to see … what it actually would look like,” she said.

On the plus side, the program “would give us an opportunity to reach more students,” Ms. Sorrells said. “We want our school to be reflective of the city’s profile.”

But a key concern, she said, are demands the program might impose on schools, such as on admissions practices or standardized testing. “There are just some areas in the voucher system that private schools have to be very careful about, and one is … autonomy,” Ms. Sorrells said. “You don’t want to lose that.”

The tuition for St. Paul’s—$10,500 at the elementary level—is higher than the voucher maximum, but Ms. Sorrells said her school has a “very generous financial-aid program” that could bridge the gap.

Overall, analysts say it’s not clear whether enough seats would be available in nonpublic schools to accommodate 1,500 voucher students.

Critics suggest the best private schools won’t step forward.

“There’s very little chance that the top-tier schools are going to participate,” predicted Mr. Monaghan from the teachers’ union.

One contentious issue is whether participating schools would face standardized-testing mandates, and who would be tested. As currently crafted, the Senate plan would require schools to administer state tests to voucher students.

Daniel J. Loar, the executive director of the Louisiana Conference of Catholic Bishops, said his organization could live with that approach. “We’re not crazy about it,” he said, “but we’ve decided to accept it.”

Vol. 27, Issue 39, Pages ,

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