As a former state senator, I take audit reports seriously since they provide a critical look at our state programs. Because of my background, I’m familiar with reading audit reports. That’s why I have been disappointed with the media coverage about the most recent audit report on the Louisiana Scholarship Program.
Will Sentell’s story in The Advocate is titled, “Legislative auditor criticizes voucher program,” and The Times Picayune claimed that the audit reported that the “program doesn’t have enough safeguards to ensure participating private schools spend public money properly.”
Both of these stories, written by very talented reporters, miss the point, purpose and reason for the auditor’s report. The report didn’t criticize the program; it offered ways to strengthen the program, and while the auditor raised questions about safeguards, the Louisiana Department of Education ably responded how it is safeguarding precious tax dollars while ensuring children attend only quality schools.
But, what was lost among the misleading headline and media coverage is the clear evidence in the audit report that in terms of popularity, the program is working. The first section in the audit describes the rapid growth and demand for the program, “Student participation increased by a total of 269 percent, or 4,937 students, during the first two years of the program expansion statewide.” And, as the audit continues, that demand is matched by a “258 percent” increase in the number of participating schools, from 33 to 118 schools. This dramatic growth is important, and as with any new program, growing pains are expected, especially when the rate of growth is more than 200 percent.
While opponents of educational choice want to poke holes into a popular program because it disrupts the status quo and provides parents with vital options, the very young Louisiana Scholarship Program is already beginning to show positive results, despite minor growing pains. The annual state test, iLEAP, found students who have been in the Louisiana Scholarship Program since 2008 had better test scores. Third grade students who had been in the program for multiple years have increased English language arts scores by 20 percentage points, and math scores have increased by 28 percentage points. These results illustrate why the program is popular and necessary. And, as the legislation was designed to do, schools participating in the scholarship program that fail to help improve student outcomes have been blocked from accepting new students.
This isn’t my first rodeo and this isn’t the first time opponents of progress will try and manipulate an audit report to their benefit. But, I know most Louisiana citizens see through the political games and recognize the educational gains of the Louisiana Scholarship Program and how the program is designed to ensure students trapped in underperforming schools have access to quality options.
president, Louisiana Federation for Children