by Will Sentell
Capitol news bureau
August 06, 2012
Louisiana is launching one of the biggest voucher programs in the nation amid conflicting arguments on how those students fare in the classroom.
Advocates say evidence clearly shows that students who qualify for the aid show gains in reading, math and other subjects.
Opponents contend there is ample research that proves vouchers have little or no effect on academic performance.
Not surprising, said Leslie Jacobs, who is the founder of Educate Now!, a nonprofit group working to improve public schools in New Orleans.
“Performance is uneven in traditional public schools,” Jacobs wrote recently.
“Performance is uneven in charter schools,” she said. “It should come as no surprise that performance is uneven in nonpublic schools.”
Vouchers have been used in New Orleans since 2008, with about 1,700 students receiving them during the 2011-12 school year.
But the state is about to start a statewide voucher program for at least 5,600 students at 119 private and parochial schools.
Under the plan, students will get aid from the state that averages $5,300 per student for tuition and mandatory fees.
The idea is that students in failing public schools — 44 percent are rated D or F — will have a better chance to succeed at virtually any private or parochial school.
Is it true?
Jacobs, a former key member of Louisiana’s top school board, recently did a study of two New Orleans schools that have accepted voucher students for the past four years.
St. Leo the Great last year had 136 voucher students.
Upperroom Bible Church Academy had 74.
Voucher students accounted for more than 60 percent of enrollment at both schools.
But 68 percent of students at St. Leo met the state’s goal of proficiency or above on standardized tests, better than all but six schools in the state-run Recovery School District.
However, just 24 percent of Upperroom students met the state’s proficiency goals, and the school would be the target of a state takeover if it was a public school.
The wide variance, Jacobs said, is the reason that states need a top-flight evaluation system.
“When you try to do large numbers in any way you have good and bad performances,” she said.
The American Federation for Children, which calls itself the nation’s largest advocate of school choice, says on its website that nine of 10 studies cited “find that vouchers improve outcomes, six that all students benefit and three that some benefit and some are not affected.”
A study of the 22-year-old Milwaukee voucher program in April found that graduation rates were 7 percent higher than those of Milwaukee public schools, said Malcom Glenn, national director of communications for the group.
But the American Federation of Teachers, a union that opposes the aid, said a 1990-95 study by the University of Wisconsin-Madison found no differences in reading and math achievement between voucher students and their public school peers.
Glenn said a 2010 study of a voucher program in Washington, D.C., concluded that 91 percent of Milwaukee voucher students graduated, which was 21 percentage points higher than students who sought but failed to get vouchers.
However, the AFT’s website says a four-year evaluation of the same program by then-Georgetown University’s Patrick Wolf “found no difference in student achievement between voucher and public school students overall, or for students from schools ‘in need of improvement’.”
Backers contend that, aside from any studies, parents choose vouchers for a variety of reasons and that satisfaction with the aid never slips below the low 90s.
“This is access that they otherwise would not have,” Kenneth Campbell, president of the Black Alliance for Educational options, said of voucher students and parents.
Senate Education Committee Chairman Conrad Appel, R-Metairie, who sponsored this year’s voucher expansion bill, said it is hard to quantify why parents opt for vouchers.
Appel said some are seeking a better academic environment or religious training, including some of those who sought the aid in New Orleans starting in 2008.
“The parents were interested in getting out of a bad situation,” he said.
Last year Indiana began the largest voucher program in the nation with 3,919 students.
All students have to take the state-mandated tests, but the results of voucher students are not separated from others, said Adam Baker, communications specialist for the Indiana Department of Education.
About 7,500 students have applied for vouchers this year, Baker said.
“I think the fact that we had the largest voucher program in the nation shows that parents are taking the choice and want these choices for students,” he said.
Nearly 10,000 students applied for vouchers in Louisiana for the 2012-13 school year.
The state has awarded about 5,600 so far, and possibly a few hundred more depending on classroom availability.