Audit renews voucher arguments

Voucher opponents say a legislative audit points out the need for major changes in the program, including new steps to ensure the quality of schools that accept the students.

“We are hoping there will be some kind of legislation,” said Debbie Meaux, president of the Louisiana Association of Educators, which is a teachers’ union.

On the other side, backers contend the state Legislative Auditor Daryl Purpera’s review, which was issued on Dec. 16, was more positive than negative and that any adjustments in voucher rules should be just that — modest tweaks.

“I think right now the measures we put into place are doing what they are supposed to,” said Chas Roemer, president of the state Board of Elementary and Secondary Education.

Roemer said the panel, which sets policies for public schools statewide, has no plans to revamp rules that govern voucher operations.

The Legislature, prodded by Gov. Bobby Jindal, approved a bill in 2012 that expanded what used to be a program solely in New Orleans to one that now operates statewide.

Vouchers are state aid for students who formerly attended public schools rated C, D and F to move to private schools with the tuition and some fees paid by state taxpayers. The family income of recipients cannot exceed 250 percent of the federal poverty level.

The statewide program is in its second year of operation and costs state government about $44 million.

However, Purpera’s report has reignited arguments about the aid, which has divided the state’s education community for years.

The review noted public schools, which are all but nonexistent in the program, have to be rated A or B by the state to accept voucher students.

Private schools have to meet requirements spelled out in state law and BESE rules but they do not get state grades.

Purpera also took what some called the unusual step of saying that the Legislature may want to revisit the issue “to include the requirement that nonpublic schools seeking to participate in the (voucher) program are academically acceptable.”

Voucher opponents seized on the audit to argue that it confirms what they warned state officials about nearly two years ago.

Steve Monaghan, president of the Louisiana Federation of Teachers, said his group tried to tell BESE in July 2012 that the rules to govern the program fell short.

When BESE held a hearing it “degenerated into a pep really for vouchers” with 10 minutes or less for constructive suggestions, Monaghan said in a prepared statement.

Meaux, whose group has long been critical of vouchers, said the audit pointed up a fundamental flaw with the program.

“There is no assurance by the state department (of education) that our parents or switching or re-enrolling kids into schools of higher quality than the ones they are leaving,” Meaux said in an interview.

She said legislators have given Gov. Bobby Jindal and state Superintendent of Education John White time to get the aid right. “But I do believe their constituents and the legislators themselves will want some accountability for the money that is being diverted out of the public system,” Meaux said.

The 2014 regular legislative session begins on March 10.

Backers countered that ample oversight is already in place.

Schools have to be approved by BESE and comply with racial and other nondiscrimination rules.

They also have to spell out the number of scholarships offered, whether special education students are included and the maximum tuition and fees charged.

Critics say parents need more information on voucher schools before they enroll their children, especially since private schools are not assigned letter grades.

White said during a legislative committee hearing on Dec. 19 that parents can review test scores, parental satisfaction surveys and other information before they make a decision.

No such pre-screening takes place before students enter a public school, he told lawmakers.

Backers also said that vouchers embody the parental choice that allows them, not government officials, to have the final say on where their children attend school.

“I have not heard a single thing this year that has made me doubt this program is a lifesaver for over 6,000 children in our state,” said Brigitte Nieland, who tracks public school issues for the Louisiana Association of Business and Industry, which backs vouchers.

About 6,700 students use the state aid at 126 schools statewide, nearly every one them private.

A pro-voucher group, noted that enrollment has grown by more than 200 percent in two years.

Senate Education Committee Chairman Conrad Appel, R-Metairie, one of the sponsors of the 2012 voucher measure, said the state Department of Education’s response to Purpera’s report was more agreement than disagreement.

“I am not sure there is anything urgent to do at this time,” Appel said of possible changes.