Published Online: June 16, 2008
Published in Print: June 18, 2008, as La. Voucher Program Borrows From Plans Around the Country

La. Voucher Program Borrows From Plans Around the Country

Louisiana appears on track to enact a private-school-voucher plan for New Orleans that borrows from choice programs elsewhere in several respects, from its focus on a single city and its means-testing of families to its targeting of students enrolled in low-performing public schools.

The $10 million plan would provide vouchers for as many as 1,500 city students to attend secular or religious nonpublic schools this coming fall. The Louisiana Senate approved it by a vote of 26-12 on June 11. A similar version passed the House 60-42 last month.

The initiative is a high priority for Gov. Bobby Jindal, a Republican, who has pushed hard for its passage. Before the governor can sign it into law, the amended measure must return to the House for a second vote.

The action comes after years of previous efforts by voucher supporters to win approval of a school voucher plan in Louisiana.

“We are beginning to design different ways of educating our kids,” Sen. Ann Duplessis of New Orleans, a Democrat who is a leading advocate for the bill, said during the June 11 debate in the Senate.

But, as voucher supporters have learned in other states, enacting a voucher plan is no guarantee of its future status. Legal challenges have scuttled programs in Florida and Colorado, and just last month, a state appeals court ruled that two Arizona voucher programs violate the state constitution.

The leader of the Louisiana School Boards Association said his group is contemplating a legal challenge to the New Orleans program. Nolton J. Senegal, the group’s executive director, argued that public funds should not cover tuition costs at private schools.

“We already have school districts that are willing to join in a class-action lawsuit,” he said.

Outside Influence

Currently, six states—Arizona, Florida, Georgia, Ohio, Utah, and Wisconsin—have voucher programs of some sort in place. Some are targeted to students with special needs or in certain districts, for example. In addition, a federally financed voucher program for students in the District of Columbia has been in operation since 2004.

The U.S. Supreme Court, in a 2002 decision, upheld the use of publicly funded tuition vouchers at religious schools in Cleveland.

The New Orleans plan approved by the Louisiana Senate would provide up to about $6,300 in tuition aid for students in grades K-3 under a formula. The maximum amount would be higher for students with disabilities.

In future years, the vouchers would continue to pay tuition for those students as they advanced to higher grade levels. To be eligible, children entering grades 1-3 would need to have been enrolled in New Orleans public schools identified as “failing” under the state accountability system, the measure says. No such requirement would apply to entering kindergartners.

Participating families’ income could not exceed 250 percent of federal poverty guidelines.

In crafting the plan, Gov. Jindal, his legislative allies, and pro-charter groups drew on voucher programs elsewhere, observers say. “They looked at the experience in a number of other states and tried to select elements that they thought were worthwhile and successful,” said Brigitte T. Nieland, the education director for the Louisiana Association of Business and Industry, which backs the bill.

Like the programs for the District of Columbia and Milwaukee, the vouchers would be means-tested, though Louisiana’s income threshold would be higher, allowing a family of four earning up to $53,000 to participate.

Joining the Club

The voucher measures approved by Louisiana’s House and Senate for New Orleans students share some key features with existing private-school-voucher programs in the District of Columbia, Ohio, and Wisconsin.

Louisiana

Student Scholarships for Educational Excellence Program Eligibility: Students living in New Orleans in grades K-3, with program gradually expanding to higher grades. Family income may not exceed 250 percent of federal poverty guidelines. Participating students in grades 1-3 must come from schools identified as low-performing under the Louisiana accountability system.
Program funding: $10 million
Students participating: Up to 1,500
Average voucher: N/A. Total generally may not exceed an estimated $6,300, based on a formula, except higher amounts are permitted for students with disabilities.
Schools participating: N/A

District of Columbia

Opportunity Scholarship Program
Enacted:
2004
Eligibility: Students living in nation’s capital in grades K-12. Family income may not exceed 185 percent of federal poverty guidelines. Priority is given to low-income students who attend schools deemed in need of improvement, corrective action, or restructuring under the federal No Child Left Behind Act.
Program funding: $12.5 million allocated for 2007-08
Students participating: 1,903 (2007-08)
Average voucher: $6,986 (2006-07)
Schools participating: 60 (2007-08)

Ohio

Cleveland Scholarship and Tutoring Program
Enacted:
1995
Eligibility: Students living within boundaries of Cleveland’s municipal school district. Must be in grades K-8 when first applying. Priority is given to families with an income below 200 percent of federal poverty guidelines.
Program funding: $17.4 million spent in 2006-07
Students participating: 6,182 (2007-08)
Average voucher: $2,830 (2006-07)
Schools participating: 45 (2007-08)

Educational Choice Scholarship Program
Enacted:
2005
Eligibility: Students in grades K-12 must be attending a public school that in two of the past three years was classified as in “academic watch” or “academic emergency” under the state accountability system. Priority is given to families with an income at or below 200 percent of federal poverty guidelines.
Program funding: $10.3 million spent in 2006-07
Students participating: 6,764 (2007-08)
Average voucher: N/A. Maximum award is $4,375 for grades K-8 and $5,150 for grades 9-12
Schools participating: 319 (2007-08)

Wisconsin

Milwaukee Parental Choice Program
Enacted:
1990
Eligibility: Students in grades K-12. Family income may not exceed 175 percent of federal poverty guidelines. Participants or siblings may remain in the program if the family’s income rises, to a ceiling of 220 percent of federal poverty guidelines.
Program funding: $120.3 million estimated cost in 2007-08
Students participating: 18,550 (2007-08)
Average voucher: N/A. Maximum award is $6,501
Schools participating: 122

SOURCES: Alliance for School Choice/Advocates for Choice; Education Week

That aspect of the plan drew criticism from The Times-Picayune newspaper of New Orleans.

“[T]he income levels in the legislation don’t truly target poor children,” the newspaper said in a May 14 editorial.

Cherry-Picking Ideas?

In targeting the vouchers mainly to students in low-performing schools, the measure gives a nod to the Ohio playbook, where the statewide program also has such a requirement. The District of Columbia program gives priority to students who attend schools identified as low-performing under federal law.

And as in some other programs, participating nonpublic schools would have to give standardized tests to voucher students.

In Louisiana, that includes state-sponsored achievement tests. However, exam results would not be tied to promotion to the next grade, as they are for 4th and 8th graders in the state’s public schools.

Les Landon, the director of public relations for the Louisiana Federation of Teachers, argued that the program’s design was driven by political calculation by the governor and his allies rather than by creation of sound policy.

“They have cherry-picked ideas from voucher schemes all across the country,” said Mr. Landon, whose union is an affiliate of the American Federation of Teachers. “They have tried to incorporate everything they can think of to make it as politically palatable to as many people as possible.”

Zack Dawes, who lobbied for the bill on behalf of Advocates for School Choice, a Washington-based advocacy group, said the same could be said for most legislation. “But they are trying to [create a program] that will work,” he said. “They want to accomplish something for these families.”

New Orleans is home to an especially large supply of nonpublic schools, due in part to a strong Roman Catholic presence and frustrations with the city’s long-troubled public schools. Yet at least for the fall, analysts suggest, it’s unlikely that enough seats would be available in nonpublic schools for the maximum of 1,500 students to take part. ("Voucher Plan for New Orleans Gathers Steam," June 4, 2008.)

Outlook Uncertain

It remains unclear whether New Orleans families will get a chance to test the program, given that it may first be tested in court.

“The voucher programs have not fared well in challenges brought under state constitutional provisions,” said Judith E. Schaeffer, the legal director for the People for the American Way Foundation, a Washington advocacy organization that has helped with successful anti-voucher lawsuits in Colorado and Florida. She cautioned that she had not examined the Louisiana situation.

But Richard D. Komer, a senior litigation attorney at the Institute for Justice, a Washington-based legal group that has worked to advance voucher plans, said Louisiana’s program would likely have a better chance of withstanding judicial scrutiny than most states.

“We view it as probably among the most favorable constitutions for school choice programs,” he said.

Vol. 27, Issue 42, Page 7

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Correction: 
In a previous version, Richard D. Komer's name was misspelled.

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