New Orleans— State Superintendent of Education John White joined faculty and students at Good Shepherd School in New Orleans on Tuesday, presenting a progress report on the Louisiana Scholarship Program to mark the program’s first quarter.
White called the Pelican Institute for Public Policy’s report a “thoughtful summary” of the program’s progress.
Allowing parents to choose between public, charter and private schools is “obviously a just thing,” White said.
The report details the statewide expansion of the program in which 4,944 children have been provided state-funded scholarships to attend private or religious schools. One of the 118 participating schools is a high-performing public school.
Based on his visits to a handful of the schools, the state director for the Black Alliance for Educational Options, Eric Lewis, said “kids are learning and attentive,” and parents are much happier about their children’s education than they were a year ago.
The expansion, approved in the April legislative session, added an additional 3,000 scholarships to the program that began in the New Orleans area in 2008.
Alijah Connor, whose child is attending Good Shepherd on a state-funded scholarship, said she wishes her older children would have been offered the same opportunities.
Because of the program, “We feel things are a little more even,’’ she said. “Every parent should have the same opportunity, and the same choice.”
Good Shepherd Principal Emily Paul said her third-graders recently performed higher on the standardized tests than any other third-graders in the scholarship program. The school is in its fifth year with the program.
“Seeing is believing,’’ she said.
Paul also stressed the magnitude of parental engagement in the children’s success. The program has “truly has made the difference in the lives of many, many children,” she said.
Archdiocese Superintendent Jan Lancaster also touted a rise in test scores as a sign of success. About 3,000 of the nearly 5,000 students on scholarship are enrolled in schools run by the archdiocese.
White acknowledged the program has had its critics, saying he sees opposition to the program, as “opposing the right to choose, and “trying to remove the rights of parents and the rights of children.”
White also said opposition to the program has “become a question of ethics and morals.”
The Supreme Court made it clear the state can allow parochial schools to participate because the money is given to the parents, and they choose where to spend it, according to Marjorie Esman, executive director of the ACLU of Louisiana.
In terms of promoting a religious education, Esman said, mainstream religious schools were not her concern — but rather the “Bible academies” that substitute a literal interpretation of the Bible as curriculum.
The requirement for the schools to have a curriculum that is “substantially equivalent,” leaves questions, Esman said.
“I don’t know what that means—how do you measure that,” she said. Esman said schools will not be held accountable under the end of the school year, after children have received a questionable education.
Addressing the concern regarding “fly-by-the-night’’ schools, White pointed to the report’s findings that 86 percent of the participating schools have been educating children in Louisiana for 10 or more years, 73 percent for more than 25 years and 47 percent of the schools have been in operation for 50 or more years.
“One of the most inherent flaws of the voucher program is that there simply aren’t enough facilities to accommodate the students,” said Dr. Lance Hill, executive director of Tulane University’s Southern Institute for Education and Research.
Hill said he was doubtful about the program’s ability to expand.
The state has 380,000 eligible students, he said, but less than 10,000 seats identified as available by the program.
“By and large, the private schools are already filled up with the students they want,” Hill said.
Hill also said that passage of expansion was somewhat of a “diversion from the real changes: the radical expansion of charter schools and expanded number of charter authorizers.”
He pointed out half of the 690,000 public-school seats are in schools the state regards as “failing.”
Theoretically, with the new legislation, “350,000 seats could be made available overnight.” Those numbers, Hill said, present a much larger potential impact on how children are educated in Louisiana
In terms of transparency with how the money is spent, White said, there is “accountability at every turn.” White said with the per-student spending decreasing from $8,500 to $5,000, the state will see $18 million in savings.
Taxpayers, he said, were not being served by low-performing schools, and through the scholarship program are “demanding what they deserve.”