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LA Superintendent John White: Voucher Program Will Fund Failing Private Schools

As a part of his ongoing efforts to “muddy up a narrative” about Louisiana’s voucher program, Education Superintendent John White announced new “accountability standards” for schools that qualify for voucher funding. And this time, Mr. White (no relation to me, by the way) seems to have convinced The Times-Picayune to run with his spin. Quoting:

Private schools participating in Louisiana’s new voucher program for low-income students will have to clear roughly the same academic bar that public schools do in order to keep accepting taxpayer dollars, according to a new accountability plan proposed by the state’s top education official.

Except that’s not entirely true or accurate. Remember, Governor Jindal and Mr. White have defended their controversial plan to divert taxpayer money to private schools by suggesting that they were merely giving parents the ability to pull their children out of “failing schools.” Then, once the list of schools Mr. White had “qualified” became public and it became clear that Governor Jindal and Mr. White intended to give tens of millions of taxpayer dollars every year to schools that lacked basic facilities, relied on DVDs instead of teachers, employed administrators convicted of fraud, and taught students that scientists were all “sinful” people, among other things, the Governor and the Superintendent retroactively retired the word “qualified.” They’d meant to say “pre-qualified,” you see. Honest mistake.  John White, we were led to believe, had been working on a strict set of criteria to evaluate the merits of these schools, and if they didn’t pass muster, they’d be removed from the list.

With less than a month to go before the beginning of the school year, Superintendent White finally released the criteria, and despite his spin and despite the somewhat sympathetic reporting of The Times-Picayune, these so-called “standards” will guarantee that taxpayer dollars will be used to fund failing, unaccountable private schools all over the State of Louisiana. His so-called “standards” are actually just empty rhetoric, an attempt to justify and codify a massive redistribution of public wealth to religious institutions.

Beginning this coming school year, if White’s plan is put in place, private schools accepting an average of more than 10 voucher students per grade, or a total of 40 assigned to grades in which students take standardized exams, will have to earn a performance score of at least 50 in order to keep taking additional students in subsequent years. The scores, derived from exam results and other factors, will be based on the new 150-point scale used for grading public schools in Louisiana, which is slated to replace a more complicated 200-point system this year. Public schools that score below a 50 will be labeled “failing” and face being taken over by the state if they can’t improve results.

Last week, Zack Kopplin identified twenty different voucher schools all over the State of Louisiana that teach Young Earth Creationism. Because at least ten of these schools are slated to receive forty or fewer voucher students, they will not even be subjected to any real oversight at all. They can be abysmal; they can teach kids the Lochness Monster disproves evolution or that the KKK wasn’t really all that bad or that Japanese fishermen caught a real dinosaur around thirty years ago (all things they actually teach, by the way).

But even those schools that accept more than forty students (or ten voucher students per grade in which students take standardized tests) will not really be subjected to scrutiny. You see, in order to qualify for a voucher, a student must be zoned for a school that is graded as a C, D, or F, which essentially opens up the program to 56% of all public school children in Louisiana. But now, according to Mr. White’s new “standards” (which conveniently include a new scale), all a school needs to do to qualify for vouchers is to make a D minus. In effect, we will be taking public dollars from “C” public schools and giving those precious dollars to fund “D minus” private schools. And incidentally, one of the main factors in determining the grades of these schools is their pass/fail rates, which creates a huge incentive for voucher schools to simply engage in grade inflation.

Once again, put simply, John White and Bobby Jindal are, by their own definition of the word “failing,” proposing that Louisiana taxpayers fund failing private schools. These standards are just a charade, yet another attempt at muddying up a narrative, a blatantly obvious effort to confuse the public. Make no mistake: This is not about increasing accountability; it’s about justifying a lack of accountability.

One more thing: When the Jindal administration faced an injunction that would have delayed the implementation of the voucher program, they disingenuously told the court that delaying implementation would result in deficit spending, hanging onto a statute that prohibits an injunction if it creates a deficit. But they didn’t merely suggest it would have been a small deficit; they claimed, to the court, that it would result in a loss of $3.4 billion. It was, in my opinion, a particularly specious and dishonest legal argument, bordering on perjury. An injunction against the voucher program would not have resulted in a total loss of $3.4 billion, but because that is what Mr. Jindal’s lawyer had claimed, the judge felt obligated to take him at his word.

However, as Brian Blackwell, an attorney for the plaintiffs, said, “That’s just kind of crazy. … There’s no way that not spending money can cause a deficit. When you don’t fund something, you can’t have a deficit. There’s no deficit if you can’t spend.” Blackwell pointed out that the funds have already been sent to the Department of Education and that an injunction would merely prevent the money from being distributed.

Additionally, because the size of the state’s Minimum Foundation Program has grown since 2011, Blackwell notes — according to the New Orleans Times-Picayune — that using last year’s funding formula, which Louisiana would utilize if the state legislature could not agree upon a new one, would leave tens of millions of dollars as surplus for the DoE.

Governor Jindal and Mr. White are obviously hell-bent on jamming through this voucher program, even if it means potentially lying to the court and even if it requires them to concoct some sort of fake, toothless, half-baked “accountability” standards that merely reinforce the untested, unprecedented “game” they’re now playing with our school system– our actual, historic, whether  inner-city or rural– neighborhood school system, those schools who have for decades been the foundation of a neighborhood and  an incredible part of the neighborhood’s built environment, traditions, and cultural and social identities.

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