States

La. School Choice Options Expand After Sweeping Education Overhaul

By Sean Cavanagh — April 13, 2012 9 min read
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Over the objections of teachers’ unions and many Democrats, Louisiana’s Republican governor and GOP-controlled legislature have crafted one of the most exhaustive education overhauls of any state in the country, through measures that will dramatically expand families’ access to public money to cover the costs of both private school tuition and individual courses offered by a menu of providers.

A pair of bills championed by Gov. Bobby Jindal, which he is expected to sign into law, will expand a state-run private-school-voucher program beyond New Orleans to other academically struggling schools around the state, give superintendents and principals direct control over personnel decisions, and set much higher standards for awarding teachers tenure.

Other changes in the package will allow the number of charter school authorizers in the state to grow and give parents the power to overhaul the governance of academically struggling schools—a step known as a “parent trigger” in other states, where the process has stirred controversy.

But the furthest-reaching aspects of the new laws focus on school choice. Louisiana’s expansion of voucher laws will set relatively loose income-eligibility requirements, so that some middle-income families in academically struggling schools can use public money for private tuition. The state will also allow students in low-performing schools to use a portion of their per-pupil funding to take individual courses at other locations, such as at other public schools, technical or vocational programs, colleges, or online.

“The governor’s interest is not to create a voucher system or a virtual system, but to create a system of choice and competition, one based on the decisions and needs of families,” John White, Louisiana’s superintendent of education, said in an interview. The per-course funding will let students and families “choose from a marketplace” of providers, based on a “simple principle—the dollars follow the child,” said Mr. White, echoing a core belief among supporters of private school choice.

Changes for Teachers

Louisiana joins 14 states over the past two years that have created or expanded private school vouchers, according to the Friedman Foundation for Educational Choice, an Indianapolis organization that backs private school choice. Those state efforts have in most cases been driven by Republicans, who were emboldened by big gains their party made in the 2010 elections, which left the GOP in control of a majority of governor’s offices and more state legislative seats than at any time since the Great Depression.

Some of those measures have been challenged in court—often with backing from teachers’ unions—on the grounds that they violate provisions in individual states’ constitutions, which vary in the extent to which they bar public money from flowing to non-public or religious institutions.

Not all of the barriers to voucher expansion have come from opponents of the concept. In Arizona, Gov. Janice K. Brewer, a Republican who supports private school choice, this month vetoed legislation that would have expanded a voucher program in her state. She cited worries about its costs and about the government “artificially manipulating” the market of public and private schools.

Gov. Jindal, who was elected in 2007, unveiled a broad legislative agenda for schools in January that called for sweeping changes in choice, teacher-performance standards, and other areas. But he also enraged the state’s two major teachers’ unions, the Louisiana Association of Educators and the Louisiana Federation of Teachers, with his use of what they saw as divisive and confrontational language. In one speech, Mr. Jindal compared schools unfavorably with businesses and argued that educators should be rewarded for effectiveness, rather than “for the length of time they have been breathing.”

Changes From Baton Rouge

A pair of bills expected to be signed by Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal make broad changes to the state’s education system in areas that include school choice, charter schools, and teacher job protections. Those measures will:

• Expand an existing New Orleans private school voucher system statewide. The program would be open to eligible students in schools receiving Cs, Ds, and Fs, from families with incomes up to 250 percent of the federal poverty guidelines.

• Allow students in low-performing schools to use a portion of per-pupil money at other locations—including other public schools, colleges, and technical programs.

• Create a “parent trigger” option, which allows parents in a low-performing school to transfer control of the school to the state-run Recovery School District, if at least 50 percent of parents vote to do so.

• Give the state board of education the power to approve new charter authorizers, such as nonprofits and public universities.

• Hand control over personnel and hiring decisions to superintendents and principals, removing those decisions from local school boards.

• Allow superintendents to base compensation on performance and academic preparation in hard-to-staff areas, rather than on degrees or years of service. Eliminates seniority as a factor in layoff decisions.

SOURCE: Louisiana House Bills 974 and 976

Three months later, however, Mr. Jindal, backed by Republican majorities in both legislative chambers, has won passage of significant portions of his agenda. Some pieces of the package closely resemble measures approved in other states, while others head in what many observers say are new directions.

Louisiana’s legislation, like measures approved in a number of other states, will mandate that school layoff decisions be based on performance, not seniority; and spells out that only teachers who are consistently effective receive tenure. It also requires that superintendents and principals, not local school boards, make all hiring and placement decisions, a measure that supporters say will do more to insulate those decisions from politics. The teacher provisions are meant to align with a law approved by Louisiana legislators two years ago that ties educator and principal evaluations to student academic growth.

Joyce Haynes, the president of the 20,000-member Louisiana Association of Educators, said that taken together, those policies create an unfair and test-driven system that can be skewed to make a “good teacher look bad, or a bad teacher look good.”

Educators were “totally ignored” in crafting the policies, Ms. Haynes said, in a sign of “total disrespect.”

Mr. White said he had heard from hundreds of teachers who supported the new policies. The measures will “shift the paradigm,” he said, for how teachers are evaluated and rewarded for their performance.

The union also fought, unsuccessfully, to halt Gov. Jindal’s expansion of school choice. Vouchers will be expanded from New Orleans to districts across the state. Students will be eligible if they are in schools that received C, D, or F grades from the state’s school grading system.

But while some other state voucher programs limit eligibility to students from low-income backgrounds, Louisiana’s measure allows families to participate if they are at 250 percent of the federal poverty guidelines. That would mean a household income of roughly $57,000 for a family of four, state officials said. The provision will allow some families from middle-income backgrounds to receive the aid if their children are in academically struggling schools. (Children entering kindergarten are also eligible, if their families meet the income requirements.)

Similarities Elsewhere

The Louisiana policies bear some similarities to another expansive voucher law, approved in Indiana last year. Students from Indiana households with incomes of up to 150 percent of the amount required to qualify for reduced-price lunch—up to about $64,000 for a family of four—may receive 50 percent of the per-pupil amounts offered in their home districts.

The Indiana and Louisiana policies are unusual, not only in their relatively loose income-eligibility requirements, but because overall, unlike many other states, they have few caps or restrictions on the number of students who can take part over time and on who can receive aid through the program, according to the Friedman Foundation. As many as 380,000 students in Louisiana are expected to be eligible for the state’s voucher program, state officials estimate, with growth dictated by parents’ interest and the number of participating public and private schools.

Robert C. Enlow, the president and chief executive officer of the Friedman Foundation, predicted that Louisiana’s law would not only provide opportunities for families to attend existing private schools, but would also draw out-of-state private schools to the Bayou State, in much the same way that charter school organizations are lured to states where conditions are ripe for growth.

“Innovators will come and provide seats for children, and build new seats,” Mr. Enlow said.

Others are less certain how the voucher policy will affect Louisiana’s private schools, which currently enroll about 132,000 students, according to federal statistics. About 80,000 students of those students are in schools affiliated with the Roman Catholic church, said Danny Loar, the executive director of the Louisiana Conference of Catholic Bishops.

The New Orleans voucher program is popular among families, said Mr. Loar, who is pleased to see the choice program expand statewide. But he also said many Catholic schools in Louisiana lack the space to accept new students, and could not afford new construction and personnel costs, he said.

The new voucher program “could help schools if they have extra seats and can add capacity without adding a teacher,” Mr. Loar said, or without taking on new “brick-and-mortar expenses.”

The voucher program also could face legal challenges. The Louisiana Association of Educators believes the new voucher program violates the state constitution, and the union would likely support a legal challenge, said Michael Walker-Jones, the organization’s executive director. The LAE also believes the voucher measure flouts state law by improperly taking a portion of locally raised school funding from districts.

State officials are convinced the new law is “legal without question,” said Mr. White, the state schools chief.

The new policies also allow students in academically struggling schools to use a slice of state funding to pay for courses at other locations, which could include colleges, apprenticeship or career-and-technical programs, or online programs. Students at schools that rate a B or an A under the state’s grading system, or private schools, can also participate, but they will have to cover their costs, unless their home schools don’t offer the class they want.

Christopher Lubienski, an associate professor at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, described that course-level choice as a “new dynamic” in state policy, which reflects the long-standing conviction among some school choice advocates that the public should have more direct control over funding and “the portion of the market they use.”

But Mr. Lubienski was more skeptical of the benefits of the overall voucher expansion in Louisiana. There is little compelling evidence that vouchers boost achievement significantly for students receiving vouchers, he said, and little rigorous research that private school students outperform demographically comparable students in public schools—certainly not enough evidence to support such a dramatic expansion of private school choice.

Choice or Benefit

Mr. Lubienski, who has studied school choice, said he is not philosophically opposed to vouchers, but does not believe research has shown their benefits.

“There’s really a disregard of evidence here,” he said of the Louisiana measure. But over time, he argued, policymakers in Louisiana and other states have placed less emphasis on whether vouchers are academically beneficial, he said, and more focus on those programs’ potential to provide families with greater educational choice.

Louisiana officials, including Mr. White, note that overall student performance in the Recovery School District, which includes the New Orleans voucher program, has risen over time. The state superintendent said families will benefit from having a range of options at both the school and course levels.

The state’s approach “goes further than other states in a couple respects,” Mr. White said. “It’s the comprehensive nature of it. ... The scale of it is significant. This is not a niche program. It’s choice for all.”

A version of this article appeared in the April 18, 2012 edition of Education Week as Louisiana GOP Pushes Through Voucher Expansion

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