When you take the king’s shilling, you obey the king — and that old saying is now becoming a lesson for private and parochial schools, hitherto independent of much oversight by public authorities.
This is something of a new world, prompted by the Legislature and Gov. Bobby Jindal embracing larger state subsidies to private schools in the form of taxpayer-paid tuition vouchers.
“We are investing more public dollars in nonpublic schools,” noted state Education Superintendent John White. “It is important that we take a look at the quality and make sure we are achieving our mandates, which is that these schools be of an equal quality to that of the traditional public school system.”
White will propose to the state Board of Elementary and Secondary Education new rules for the approval of private schools. We hope that they reflect an effective response to the problems uncovered by the press, rather than the Education Department, in some private and parochial schools.
While private and parochial schools have always been regulated — in the sense of scrutiny of the fire marshal and other such public safety officials — they have also had to seek state Education Department approval as well. Private schools must, for example, must be able to show that they can provide the courses to qualify students for the TOPS tuition waiver for college.
Parochial education before vouchers, though, was largely a matter for the church and the families of students, even if private schools have traditionally been subsidized by the taxpayer, indirectly through the tax code as nonprofits and directly through state provision of textbooks and student bus services from public systems.
Vouchers for tuition raise the stakes for the taxpayer.
In its rush to get the voucher program started, the department was embarrassed when some of the schools seeking big enrollment increases were found to be sadly deficient academically. Some of them offered “instruction” through DVDs apparently in lieu of qualified teachers. Others are religious schools that teach denial of the basic theory of evolution in life sciences; some had very little in basics such as classroom space, but sought to cash in on vouchers with big enrollment increases.
This is ample fodder for Jindal’s critics, such as the liberal think tank Louisiana Progress, which called the voucher program a case of moving fast instead of “doing it right.”
“In his mad rush to push through a voucher program — mostly to up his credibility in the national media as a vice presidential candidate — Jindal has played fast and loose with underserved kids and their hopes for a better education,” the group declared. “Those children deserve better than to be pawns in Bobby Jindal’s political chess game, to be sacrificed in pursuit of his blind ambition for national office. They deserve the chance to go to better schools, not just different schools that produce more failed results.”
This year, about 120 private and parochial schools are collecting an average of $5,300 per student for 4,944 students. The worst offenders revealed in the newspapers apparently have been weeded out by the Education Department, but the program is intended to grow.
Jindal and lawmakers funded it out of money that would otherwise go to public schools. That latter point is part of a serious constitutional case in state courts, but however that turns out, we suspect that the state will find the money for this program, so politically important to the governor.
That means, though, that the state cannot afford any fly-by-night operators of private schools. Thus, the new rules. The many reputable private and parochial schools are likely to be little affected by the rules — they are a powerful constituency in Jindal’s administration — but the fact is that more regulations and at least some more paperwork are likely to be required.
The king’s shilling does not come without strings attached. The rush to get vouchers into some schools that weren’t ready for them suggests the wisdom in another old saying: Be careful what you ask for.