Discussion puts focus on liability
by Will Sentell
Capitol news bureau
October 27, 2012
“This program is successful and we are held accountable.” Jan Lancaster, superintendent of Catholic schools for the Archdiocese of New Orleans
Renewing arguments that have raged for months, voucher critics and backers clashed Thursday on whether state oversight of private and parochial schools that accept voucher students is adequate.
After an unusual 90-minute hearing, the president of the state Board of Elementary and Secondary Education said she does not expect any changes in the policy that BESE approved in July on a 9-2 vote.
“I did not hear anything that would compel the board to react differently,” said Penny Dastugue, who heads the 11-member panel.
The hearing was requested by the Louisiana Federation of Teachers, a teachers’ union that opposed vouchers when they were approved by the state Legislature earlier this year.
The gathering focused on rules that spell out the policy and which are posted for public comments before they are finalized.
Under a new state law, nearly 5,000 low-income students who attended public schools rated C, D and F now attend private schools.
The tuition and mandatory fees are financed with state and local dollars.
Louisiana Federation of Teachers President Steve Monaghan said that, while the state’s expanded voucher policy is clearly a part of state law, rules that govern the private and parochial schools that accept the aid need to be more stringent.
Monaghan said the policy approved by BESE allows state Superintendent of Education John White to waive any provisions that govern the schools, which he called a mistake.
Giving White that authority means “there are no standards at all,” Monaghan said.
He said that rules approved by BESE also give state officials too much discretion to address problems in voucher schools, including the repeated use of the word “may” instead of “shall,” such as saying the superintendent “may” declare a school ineligible to take part in the program if it endangers the health or safety of children.
“The policy should not be neutered,” Monaghan said.
But a parade of officials and parents also took turns praising vouchers.
Valerie Evans, of New Orleans, the mother of six, said her seventh-grade son qualified for a voucher.
“I believe, as a parent, I am first and foremost responsible for the environment I put my children in,” Evans said.
Evans said vouchers represent “a crisis solution to a crisis problem.”
“We do need a solution,” Evans said. “We can’t wait.”
Jan Lancaster, superintendent of Catholic schools for the Archdiocese of New Orleans, said the voucher program has worked well in New Orleans since 2008.
Lancaster said voucher students take the LEAP and iLEAP tests, like students in public schools, and those results are posted.
“This program is successful and we are held accountable,” she said.
While at least five BESE members were in the audience, the panel did not hear testimony as an official body.
The rules approved on July 24 were touted by supporters as a way to make sure that private and parochial schools that accept voucher students are accountable to taxpayers.
Under the plan, schools that meet enrollment thresholds — about 25 percent initially — will get annual state scores that show how voucher students are faring on standardized tests.
Schools that fail to meet state cutoff scores will be banned from accepting new voucher students during the next school year.
State Rep. Katrina Jackson, D-Monroe, said BESE-approved voucher rules are inadequate even though state lawmakers were assured that private schools would be held accountable.
“That is what we were promised,” Jackson said. “That is what should happen.”
Zack Kopplin, a college student and a graduate of Baton Rouge Magnet High School, said some schools that accepted voucher students are failing to meet state standards.
Kopplin said one school tells students that they “must defend creationism,” the view that life began 6,000 years ago in a process described in the Bible’s Book of Genesis.
Lauren Perry, government affairs associate for the Louisiana Federation for Children, said Louisiana has ranked 50th in kindergarten through 12th grade education for decades.
“This scholarship program is providing hope for families,” Perry said.