James Gill: Vouchers no guarantee of quality schooling

The Good Shepherd Nativity Mission School on Baronne Street in New Orleans is prayerfully grateful for its many blessings and provides an “excellent education paid for by benefactors,” according to its website.

Perhaps you find such generosity touching and wonder who these staunch supporters of Catholic education can be. Well, one of them is you. Of the school’s 76 students, 66 are there on the taxpayers’ dime, courtesy of Gov. Bobby Jindal’s voucher program.

This is not to knock Good Shepherd or to question the quality of its work. It rates special mention only because it accommodates a higher percentage of voucher students than any of Louisiana’s other 125 participating schools, almost all of which are church-affiliated, too.

They can hardly be blamed for believing in miracles. Some force beyond human reason must have been at work, for instance, when the U.S. Supreme Court upheld the constitutionality of supporting sectarian institutions with public money. The court 10 years ago upheld an Ohio voucher program much like ours, although how it could be reconciled with the establishment clause was a mystery to four dissenters.

Perhaps it was just as well for Louisiana, where public education was so dire that it seemed that any change was likely to be for the better. And, if transferring kids into private schools with a public subsidy was to be the solution, God had to be part of it, “private” and “parochial” being pretty much synonymous around here.

No kids were going to be indoctrinated against their parents’ will. Kids in schools adjudged to be failing were eligible for vouchers, but where and whether to use them was the parents’ choice. Still, a godless parent of a student in a crummy school was faced with a difficult choice. Although state law allows better-performing public schools to accept voucher students, only one has elected to do so. There is no escape save through the Lord.

Vouchers appear to have gone down well with parents. When the program started in 2011, it covered only New Orleans students, who were allowed to transfer to private schools there and in Jefferson Parish.

Now, according to a just-released legislative auditor’s report, it caters to 6,769 students in 31 districts. We benefactors are kicking in $44.6 million for the current school year. According to Jindal, it’s money well spent. “Giving every child the opportunity to get a great education is a moral imperative,” he says.

Sure, but whether handing out vouchers will ever achieve that magical result is open to considerable doubt. Some voucher recipients no doubt rejoice that they are no longer “trapped in failing schools,” as Jindal puts it, but others may remain strangers to academic rigor. LEAP scores for voucher students remain low, although the Jindal administration claims students are showing some progress in math and English.

If vouchers have so far failed to effect much improvement, the legislative auditor’s report may help to explain why. The auditor finds it necessary to recommend, for instance, that the Legislature “consider revising state law to include the requirement that nonpublic schools seeking to participate in the Scholarship Program are academically acceptable.” As if that weren’t radical enough, the report also suggests that the Education Department develop criteria for determining whether schools have the “physical capacity” to handle the number of students they apply for.

Auditors were picky enough to notice also that more than a quarter of the schools overbilled the state, in one case by $5,566 per student. The U.S. Justice Department, meanwhile, is monitoring the voucher program for fear it has upset racial balances established by desegregation orders, so Jindal has by no means turned Louisiana education around yet.

That, of course, doesn’t stop him from posing as the champion of educational excellence and freedom of choice. For a Republican politician with big ambitions, defending public schools is not an option, particularly because vouchers are a handy sop to the religious right.

Whether the Good Shepherd Nativity Mission School provides a superior education is impossible to say, but being accepted for vouchers is by no means a guarantee that transferring students will be much better off.

The Education Department has forbidden seven schools to accept any more voucher students on grounds of “gross or persistent lack of basic academic competence.”

For a kid vouchered out of one lousy school to another, what’s to be done? Praying seems the appropriate response.

James Gill’s email address is jgill@theadvocate.com.