Private and parochial schools, many of which are taking part in Louisiana’s expanded voucher program, should be subject to closer scrutiny before they get the state’s stamp of approval, state Superintendent of Education John White said Tuesday.
“We are investing more public dollars in nonpublic schools,” White said.
“It is important that we take a look at the quality and make sure we are achieving our mandates, which is that these schools be of an equal quality to that of the traditional public school system,” he said.
The proposed new rules will be presented to the state Board of Elementary and Secondary Education next month.
If approved, they could take effect later this year.
The new rigor stems in part from controversy earlier this year, much of it directed at White’s agency, on the curriculum and facilities of some state-approved, nonpublic schools that offered to take part in the state’s expanded voucher program.
Under a law approved earlier this year, students who attend public schools rated C, D or F can quality for state aid — often called vouchers — to attend private and parochial schools if their families meet income rules.
The state offered vouchers to about 5,600 students earlier this year.
About 120 private and parochial schools are collecting an average of $5,300 per student, with state tax dollars paying for voucher students.
Opponents of the new law, who have challenged the measure in the 19th Judicial District Court in Baton Rouge, contend that vouchers drain vital resources from traditional public schools.
However, the quality of some of the schools that offered slots to voucher students sparked concerns from lawmakers and others, including just how they earned the state’s seal of approval.
One such school, Eternity Christian Academy in Westlake, will not take part after state officials said it lacked adequate space to go from 38 students last year to 135 voucher students this year.
Another school that drew attention, BeauVer Christian Academy, which is in DeRidder, lacked adequate space to go from 60 students last year to 119 voucher students this year, state officials said.
The state has about 400 private and parochial schools.
Under current review standards — sort of a one-size-fits-all system — those schools have to offer a curriculum similar to public schools to land state approval.
White said today’s review “focuses more on the credentials of the individuals who are in the classroom.
“This is going to focus more on how those individuals are evaluated to the quality of their work rather than simply on a credential they bring to the job,” White said.
In addition, the state’s annual check is supposed to be tailored to the school, including its enrollment and other issues.
Under the new review system, most private and parochial schools would fill out of an annual, online disclosure form that is supposed to spell out the school’s purpose, leadership, teaching methods and effectiveness, accountability and improvement plans.
White said if red flags go off, state officials will visit the school.
He said those that undergo independent accreditations would face less-stringent state reviews. So would nonpublic schools with fewer than 40 students that do not offer high school diplomas or accept voucher students.
White spelled out his plan to the 10-member Nonpublic School Council, which is an advisory panel.
Carolyn Hill, a BESE member who lives in Baton Rouge, attended the meeting and said she is concerned about a half-a-dozen or so schools awaiting approval under the state’s current system.
Hill said the state’s OK is especially needed for schools with seniors who need approval for their school so the students can qualify for TOPS, a scholarship for college students. “They worked so hard to get where they are,” she told White.
“And then we say you will not be approved,” Hill said. “I don’t think that is fair.”
White said the state routinely acts to ensure that schools have the credentials needed for students to qualify for TOPS.
Mary-Patricia Wray, legislative and political director for the Louisiana Federation of Teachers, attended the meeting and said afterward that she wants to hear more details of the new review system.
“I guess we are hopeful that the new procedures for approving schools will not be in some ways less strict than the rules that are in place right now,” Wray said.