Education Opinion

The Louisiana Voucher Brouhaha

By Walt Gardner — March 05, 2014 2 min read
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When given the chance, voters have rejected vouchers or their variants by about 2 to 1 in 27 statewide referendums so far. Nevertheless, legislators in several states continue to thwart the will of the people they ostensibly represent by various clever strategies. Louisiana is an instructive case study (“Will Minority Children Be Barred From Southern Schoolhouses Again?” The Wall Street Journal, Mar. 1).

The Louisiana Scholarship Program, which began in 2012, provides full-tuition scholarships to all children from families with incomes below 250 percent of the poverty level. The only condition is that they attend public schools rated C, D or F by the state. Approximately 90 percent of the scholarships are used by black students. According to the Black Alliance for Educational Options, 93.6 percent of families in the program are pleased with their children’s academic progress, and 99.3 percent feel the schools are safe.

So why is the U.S. Department of Justice attempting to curtail the program? It says that the scholarships have altered the racial composition of schools, thwarting desegregation orders from 40 years ago. In other words, despite satisfaction expressed by parents, the program must yield to a court order based on conditions decades ago.

Because I’m not a lawyer, I’ll confine my remarks to education. I’ve never been to Louisiana, but there is more to the story than meets the eye. This is seen in part in the confusion arising from conflicting claims about academic performance of students in Louisiana’s program.

On one side is the claim that from 2011 to 2013, students in the state’s scholarship schools scored better on literacy and math tests than they did in their former schools. Specifically, there was a seven percent increase in the number of students performing at grade level (“The Holder-Jindal Collision,” The Weekly Standard, Sept. 9, 2013). This sounds good so far.

But on the other side is the claim that many of the most popular private schools attended by voucher students posted terrible scores in math, reading, science and social studies last spring (“Vouchers don’t do much for students,” Politico, Oct. 6, 2013). Fewer than half achieved basic proficiency, and fewer than two percent demonstrated mastery. In fact, seven schools were barred from accepting new voucher students because their test scores were appalling.

Notice that the pro-voucher school data refer only to literacy and math performance, while the anti-voucher school data refer to literacy, math, science and social studies performance. If the above facts are correct, I’d like to know why parents are characterized as being pleased with the education their children are getting.

Is it because Louisiana does not require publication of test scores if there are fewer than 40 voucher students in tested grades? (This goes for public schools as well.) Is it because parents are trying to avoid cognitive dissonance? Or is it because their children are safer than in traditional public schools? These are relevant questions that demand honest answers. So far, I’ve not heard any satisfactory explanation.

The opinions expressed in Walt Gardner’s Reality Check are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.