Legislative auditor criticizes voucher program

In a report sure to spark controversy, Legislative Auditor Daryl Purpera said Monday that the state Department of Education is short on criteria to make sure schools are academically prepared to handle their voucher students.

The agency also needs more detailed oversight to ensure that schools have the physical capacity for the students they request, Purpera said in a two-page summary that accompanied his review.

“Such criteria will become even more important in the future should the program continue to expand,” according to the audit.

The report also says that:

41 percent of voucher students scored at grade level or above on key tests.

Voucher students account for more than half the enrollment at 18 schools in the Baton Rouge and New Orleans areas of the 118 reviewed statewide.

The state was overcharged for tuition by 35 of the schools, including a top overbilling of $5,566 per student.

The school was not identified.

Those who get the state aid — backers call it scholarships — are not supposed to be charged more than others.

Vouchers are state aid for students who attend public schools rated C, D and F, and who meet income rules, to attend private schools with the tuition and some fees paid by the state.

Whether they provide students viable options to low-performing public schools is one of the most hotly-debated issues in Louisiana education circles.

Gov. Bobby Jindal and other backers contend the assistance offers families a way out of troubled public schools.

Opponents, including teacher unions, have leveled some of the same complaints that Purpera did, including questions about the quality of schools that accept voucher students and financing.

The aid was initially limited to New Orleans under a 2008 state law.

However, it was made statewide in 2012 under a measure pushed by Jindal and approved by the Legislature.

Voucher enrollment has risen from 1,832 students in 2011-12 to 4,964 in 2012-13 and 6,769 in the current school year.

Most voucher students are enrolled in kindergarten and first and second grades.

Department officials, who took the unusual step of holding a briefing on their response four days before the audit was released, emphasized the Purpera’s review focused on the first year of the statewide program — the 2012-13 school year.

In a prepared statement released late Monday, Jindal said, “More than 93 percent of parents of students participating in the Scholarship Program reported satisfaction with their children’s schools. In addition, students in the program are improving in math and science. Between 2008 and 2013, the percentage of students who are proficient in third grade English Language Arts increased by 20 percentage points and in math by 28 percentage points.”

“Most important, the program immediately offered thousands of low-income families a choice in where to send their children to school,” state Superintendent of Education John White said in a prepared statement.

Department officials agreed with some of Purpera’s recommendations.

However, they disputed his view that the state needs specific criteria for removing a school from the voucher program based on academic performance.

They said it is better to leave that issue to the discretion of the superintendent and noted that seven schools were barred from the voucher program on academic grounds last school year.

The review said that, while public schools have to be rated A or B by the state to accept voucher students, “there are no legal requirements in place to ensure non-public schools that participate in the program are academically acceptable.”

All but one of the 118 schools reviewed was a private school.

The state Department of Education’s review process “lacks formal criteria to ensure that schools have both the academic and physical capacity to serve the number of scholarship students they requested.”

In a written response, agency officials generally agreed with the findings but noted that the issue applied to 54 of 118 schools that sought increases of 50 or more new students.

In another area, the 41 percent rating for students scoring “basic” or better is aimed at showing how they are faring in the classroom, much like annual school performance scores rate public school performance.

The results apply to students from grades 3-12 attending schools that met population and other requirements, which 95 of the 118 schools did.

Tests include LEAP and iLEAP, which measure math and English skills for students in grades 3-8, and how high school students fared on end-of-course exams.

In the Baton Rouge area that achievement rate included Hosanna Christian Academy, 41.2 percent; Redemptorist Elementary School, 22.7 percent and Ascension Diocesan Regional School, 41.5 percent.

Among New Orleans schools with substantial enrollment Resurrection Of Our Lord School, 61.5 percent; St. Mary’s Academy, 38.6 percent and St. Peter Claver School, 41.1 percent.

Schools collected $24.2 million from the state for the 2012-13 school year.

The leader that year was St. Mary’s Academy in New Orleans, which got $1.7 million for 318 students.

Hosanna Christian Academy in Baton Rouge collected $1.4 million for 284 students.

Purpera’s report also said his office was unable to finish spending checks on 97 percent of the schools reviewed because they did not keep voucher funds in separate accounts.

The department should require that separation of dollars and place schools on probation that fail to do so, he said.