Former school voucher foe heads pro-voucher group

The new president of a group that supports school vouchers once fought against them — a change in views sparked in part by the murder of her father.

Ann Duplessis, who heads the Louisiana Federation for Children, recalls the time she helped derail one of the state’s first voucher bills when she served in the state Senate.

“All I had ever known was public schools, public school systems,” she said in an interview.

However, Duplessis later had a change of heart, which she said stemmed in part from the 1981 slaying of her father, the Rev. Albert O. Davis Sr., who was a cab driver and Baptist minister.

He was shot seven times, and robbed of $5, by two teenagers who had just tried to rob a Winn-Dixie store, she recalled. “And this is in the middle of the day, and they should have been in school,” she said.

“That was one of the things that really, really, really helped me to understand that we have to do something different,” she added.

“I really strongly believe that had those two young men been given other choices and wanted to be in school, my dad would perhaps be alive today.”

Vouchers, which provide state aid for some students to attend private and parochial schools, remain a highly charged topic in Louisiana.

Duplessis and other backers contend the assistance, which supporters call scholarships, offers students and parents a way out of public schools rated C, D and F.

Opponents argue that the program drains vital dollars from already under-funded public schools.

Duplessis, whose mother was a public school teacher in Plaquemines Parish, said that when she entered the Legislature in 2005 she saw little value in vouchers. She saw them mostly as a way for Catholic schools to fill empty seats sparked by declining enrollment, she said.

That same year, the state House easily passed a voucher bill for Orleans Parish, but Duplessis then helped kill it in a Senate committee.

State Rep. Austin Badon, D-New Orleans, recalls urging House colleagues to pass the bill, watching it die in the other house and then later seeing Duplessis change her views on the issue.

“She came full circle, 360,” Badon said. “She started to see that this was something that the state needed and people specifically who look like us really needed it.”

Duplessis, who like Badon is black, said time in the Legislature also caused a change in her thinking.

“When I was elected, my constituency didn’t care that I was a lawmaker, didn’t care that I had no input on the rules and laws regarding the (Orleans Parish) School Board and how they functioned,” she said.

“I had to educate myself,” she said. “And as I did I began to see the deplorable conditions of a lot of these schools.”

Duplessis also recalled a 2 a.m. phone call she got in 2005 from former Senate President John Hainkel, who asked for her help “to do something about the schools.”

She was stunned to learn later that morning that Hainkel had died during a camping trip in Mississippi with fellow senators.

“That was, I guess, a sign that I had to really get moving a lot more, engaged,” Duplessis said.

Before Hurricane Katrina struck in 2005, public schools in New Orleans were regarded as some of the worst in the nation.

The storm paved the way for a state takeover of most of the schools, and the explosive growth of charter schools, through a bill that Duplessis sponsored.

In 2008, she was the Senate sponsor of a voucher bill for New Orleans schools only.

“We couldn’t have gotten it passed if we had not limited it to Orleans Parish,” she said. “We had gone through mass destruction. There were no schools. We had to do something radically different.”

In 2012, the Legislature approved a statewide voucher program pushed by Gov. Bobby Jindal.

The aid now goes to 6,775 students, according to the state Department of Education.

Duplessis says vouchers are winning gradual acceptance, which she compared to the evolution of charter schools.

“Charter schools used to be, ‘Oh my god,’ ” she said. “Now, at least in New Orleans, you don’t NOT send your child to a charter school. It has become the norm.”

The group she heads is an offshoot of the American Federation for Children, which operates in 11 states.

Duplessis, who resigned from the Senate in 2010 to become a deputy chief administrative officer for New Orleans, is now a senior vice president at Liberty Bank and a member of the LSU Board of Supervisors.

Despite lots of debate at the State Capitol, Duplessis said, vouchers remain something of a secret.

“There are still so many people who have no clue what this is,” she said. “All they hear is the noise, right?”

“I was in the hairdresser’s the other day and I was talking to a police officer, a lady police officer. She has twin boys, 8 years old, who are currently at a charter school. But she is not happy with this particular charter school.

“I said, ‘Well, have you ever thought about applying for a Louisiana scholarship, vouchers?’ And she said, ‘I don’t know what that is.’ ”

“And so I went, ‘Are you kidding?’ Of course, I got my little feelings hurt,” she said with a laugh.

“‘I said, ‘What? Oh wait, let me tell you.’ So we’re under the hair dryer and I’m telling her all about the voucher program.”