Dennis Persica: Audit finds problems with voucher schools

Once again, the Louisiana legislative auditor’s December report on the state’s school voucher program has come in for criticism.

At a hearing last week, state Sens. Mike Walsworth, R-Monroe, and Robert Adley, R-Benton, said Legislative Auditor Daryl Purpera had wandered into the area of proposing policy rather than simply determining if a government agency is complying with state law. Similar objections to the audit were raised last year.

Purpera was criticized because he suggested legislators consider revising the voucher program to include a requirement that nonpublic schools participating in it be academically acceptable.

It didn’t seem to matter to Purpera’s critics that he was within the bounds of the state law that created his office. It says audits may include “evaluations of the economy, efficiency, and effectiveness” of the programs being audited.

Though public schools may take part in the voucher program, their participation is just about non-existent. Public schools that want to accept voucher students have to be rated A or B by the state, but no similar rules apply to private schools.

However, Louisiana Superintendent of Education John White pointed out in his response to the audit that he has the discretion to determine “gross or persistent lack of basic academic competence” at participating schools. Last year, the Department of Education prohibited seven private schools from accepting new voucher students because of the schools’ poor performance, though voucher students already there were allowed to stay enrolled at public expense.

According to the audit report, there are no specific criteria that would let the state completely remove a private school from the voucher program based on academic performance.

The Legislature convenes in two weeks, so a call for changes in the program is timely.

There’s no doubt that vouchers are popular. Voucher students increased from 1,832 in 2011-12 to 6,769 this school year.

But the audit points to problems.

Last year, 30 percent of the 118 participating schools overcharged the state, asking for more money than the school’s regular tuition. Five schools had voucher students who were not economically eligible for the program. Auditors were unable to perform all of their audit procedures at a whopping 97 percent of schools because the schools had failed to keep a separate account of the use of voucher funds.

Here’s the real eye-opener: 18 private schools have student bodies where voucher students make up more than 50 percent of the enrollment — 13 in New Orleans, four in East Baton Rouge Parish and one in Jefferson Parish. Voucher enrollment at one New Orleans school is at 87 percent; another six of those 18 schools have more than 70 percent of their students on vouchers.

Vouchers are supposed to give parents an alternative by letting them choose schools that have proven themselves in a competitive market. But it’s not hard to conclude that many of the participating schools might have been crushed by market pressures if it weren’t for voucher money keeping them afloat.

Meanwhile, the auditor’s report gives a proficiency rating of 41 percent to the scholarship program based on the results of standardized testing at 95 of the participating schools where results were available.

This seems like a scatter-shot approach to funding education, throwing spaghetti on the wall to see what will stick. Right now, it looks like only 41 percent of the spaghetti strands are sticking.

Instead of criticizing the auditor for his suggestion, legislators should be looking at more responsible and accountable ways to spend taxpayer money on vouchers.

Dennis Persica’s email address is dpersica@theadvocate.com.