But if one takes the taxpayers’ shilling ... should not one take the tests that determine whether the money is well-spent?
Do results matter?
That’s the question that should be on the mind of Education Superintendent John White as the state sets accountability standards for tuition vouchers for private and parochial schools.
But the question increasingly on the minds of policymakers is whether there will be any effective accountability at all.
At the behest of Gov. Bobby Jindal, the modest voucher program in New Orleans is being expanded statewide. The Legislature, awed by the governor’s political power, rejected amendments that would have brought along with vouchers the tests and letter-grades on school performance that come with being a public school.
A more-modest amendment by Rep. Neal Abramson, D-New Orleans, directed the Education Department to come up with accountability standards. Unhappily, the buzz is toward the ideological decision that “choice” means that the state has no obligation to ensure that parents and taxpayers get meaningful data on school performance.
The accountability standards for the New Orleans program in place since 2008 provide too little data, except for a few schools with a large number of voucher students. The results have been mixed, with some schools performing well and some poorly, although it appears the bad publicity has resulted in greater efforts by diocesan schools that took in significant numbers of voucher students.
That should be a lesson.
The spotty standards of the Orleans program are clearly inadequate for the diversity and potentially high costs of a statewide voucher program.
In meetings with superintendents, White appeared to be leaning against requiring high-stakes tests for students in private and parochial schools. We see this as a retreat from the standards of accountability set more than a decade ago in the administration of Gov. Mike Foster, and upheld against great political pressure by Gov. Kathleen Blanco and White’s predecessor, former Superintendent Paul Pastorek.
And, sadly, this is a political question, as indicated by the apparent influence of the Louisiana Family Forum, the “pro-family” right-wing group that has inordinate influence in Jindal’s administration. Gene Mills, head of the group, reported to his followers in April that, after talking to White, the state is “on the same page” on independence of private and parochial schools.
While we are rarely on the same page as Mills, we respect the point of view that vouchers — or public charter schools for that matter — require a degree of independence from bureaucracy that all too often strangles initiative in traditional systems. And, as in New Orleans since 2008, there is a practical question when only a few voucher students are enrolled in a particular school.
But if one takes the taxpayers’ shilling — a lot of them, potentially hundreds of thousands of dollars per school — should not one take the tests that determine whether the money is well-spent?
The ideological answer is that parents will determine when a school is succeeding, or failing.
What is missing from that analysis, though, is accountability to the taxpayer who is footing the bill for these vouchers. This is not Jindal money, or White money, or Mills money to dispense as they will. Their use of this money must pay off for the taxpayer.
The testing regime which has proved its worth for more than a decade seems the floor for accountability for vouchers, not some unattainable goal.
Results matter. Accountability standards should be tough and should honor the commitment that taxpayers make to quality in their investments in public education.