In many parts of Texas, high school football isn’t simply a tradition; it’s a religion, a way of life, and a mega-million dollar industry. It’s been the subject of bestselling novels, movies, and at least one hit network television show, Friday Night Lights, based on the novel of the same name. Last year, a high school in Allen, Texas made international headlines after opening a $60 football stadium, a decision that perfectly epitomizes the enormous imbalances in public education funding and financing. When the stadium in Allen was under construction, Texas Governor Rick Perry, along with the state legislature, cut more than $5 billion from public education.
Although Louisiana may not be known for high school football extravagance, football is still a religion for many of us; our NFL team, after all, is the Saints. In fact, for the fourth year in a row, more professional football players (per capita) hail from Louisiana than from any other state. Louisiana high school football may not be as glamorous or as well-funded as our Texan neighbors, but we know how to cultivate talent. And although Louisiana high school football games aren’t played in mega-million dollar stadiums, they still generate significant revenue.
Last year, when Governor Bobby Jindal swept through his education “reform” initiative, which included the most expansive school voucher program in the country, I imagined, perhaps cynically, that financially struggling private schools would be likely to exploit the program and offer a disproportionate number of vouchers to star athletes attending academically struggling public schools.
Take, for example, Evangel Christian Academy in Shreveport, a football powerhouse. During the last twenty years, Evangel has won a dozen high school football championships, a fact made even more impressive when you consider its high school opened in 1990. But in those twenty-three years, Evangel, despite its prowess on the football field, has only graduated two National Merit Scholars. (There were two in my graduating class at a public high school in Alexandria, at least four the year before. In fact, my Louisiana public high school even had a National Merit Scholar in its very first year).
Now, to be fair, I have no way of knowing whether or not Evangel Christian Academy is using the voucher program as a way of recruiting athletes to play for its football team. And unfortunately, neither does Superintendent John White or anyone else in charge, because the State of Louisiana doesn’t actually oversee which students are approved or denied for vouchers; the school does. Currently, there is no way to demonstrate that a private school is exploiting the voucher program to disproportionately recruit star athletes (even when they claim a “lottery” selection process; a lottery, after all, can always be rigged). But we do know this (bold mine):
A mother named Trailais Tillman signed up her son, Aidan, to receive a voucher. Aiden was zoned to go to a public school that is failing. She was thrilled when the lottery resulted in her son receiving a school voucher for a private school called Evangel Christian Academy.
There was a big problem, though. Aiden has autism. Evangel Christian Academy told Trailais Tillman that the school does not have the services that he needs. This means that even through Aiden was selected to receive a school voucher he cannot accept it.
Again, I hate to sound cynical, but Aiden is better off at a public school that is legally obligated to provide him with individualized special education. Either way, his story perfectly demonstrates the problem with Jindal’s voucher program– trapping the most vulnerable students into struggling schools and then reallocating already-scant resources to unaccountable private schools.
Bobby Jindal’s program uses taxpayer dollars to actively discriminate against mentally and physically disabled children. Period.
And guess what? Bobby Jindal doesn’t deny it. The Louisiana Department of Education actually issued a response to the story about Aiden. They claimed their hands were tied because non-public schools weren’t required to adhere to federal laws that protect disabled students. If Governor Jindal wants to provide tens of millions of dollars every year to private schools, then he should be championing an analog of the IDEA Act for Louisiana, instead of cowardly ducking behind it.
His voucher program has very little to do about “saving education.” So-called “school choice” provides conservatives with the ability to do two things they’ve always wanted to do: Monetize public education and eliminate all of the annoying attendant liabilities and obligations– like adequately providing for the disabled or not discriminating against students on the basis of their religion.
This has nothing to do with helping those who are most affected by failing public schools. If the goal is to decimate and further marginalize a struggling inner-city neighborhood or rural community, then one of the best ways is to strip away the funding it needs to maintain and operate its most important civic institutions– its public neighborhood schools, to gut those institutions of all but the most vulnerable, effectively transforming our public schools into federally-mandated special education centers for the mentally and physically disabled and for children who struggle academically.
So, back to football, because, apparently, that is what our legislature really cares about:
During the next month, the legislature will consider three different bills that aim to force the Louisiana High School Athletic Association to reconsider its decision to create two different high school football championships, one for public schools and one that, essentially, is for private schools. Additionally, the State Senate will consider a bill that repeals a series of laws about the LHSAA that the Louisiana State Supreme Court recently declared unconstitutional.
The irony is: Unlike Governor Bobby Jindal or the majority of the Louisiana legislature, the Louisiana High School Athletic Association actually has standards. The LHSAA doesn’t like it when member schools attempt to cheat the system by stealing athletes from other schools. They understand that high school athletics, particularly high school football, can be a cash cow, and as a result, there may be an incentive for some schools to “game” the system.
A couple of months ago, the Jindal Administration’s and the Louisiana legislature’s attempts at coercing the LHSAA were dealt a death blow at the Louisiana State Supreme Court. You can read the case here. It’s a doozy.
But the facts are pretty simple: the Louisiana legislature, at Jindal’s behest, passed a bill that required the LHSAA to allow home school students the ability to participate in their sanctioned events. Basically, home school students would become “free agents” in the lucrative world of high school football. The law violated the LSHAA’s own bylaws, which provide a framework for qualifying schools and students.
Jindal, under the banner of “school choice,” attempted to force the LHSAA, by law, to change its practices, even though neither he nor the legislature attempted to interfere with the bylaws of other, privately-held Christian athletic associations. Moreover, the Jindal administration asked the courts to rule that the LHSAA was a “quasi-public” organization, a distinction that likely made no real difference. The LHSAA was organized as a private non-profit corporation. Labeling it “quasi-public” merely meant the legislative auditor could review its annual financial reports, something already done by the IRS or anyone with a subscription to GuideStar.com.
In their amicus brief to the Louisiana Supreme Court, the Jindal administration spends an inordinate amount of time talking about Tim Tebow. Quoting (bold mine):
Perhaps the most well-known beneficiary of Florida’s Craig Dickinson Act is Tim Tebow. The statute allowed Tebow, who was home-schooled, to play football at Allen D. Nease High School in Ponte Verde, Florida. Tebow’s exploits as a high school football player are the stuff of legend in Florida. It is also common knowledge that Tebow, as the quarterback of the University of Florida football team, won the Heisman Trophy in 2007 — the award given to the most outstanding college football player in the country. Tebow helped lead the University of Florida football team to two college football national championships — one in 2006 and another in 2008. At the end of his college football career, Tebow held the all-time Southeastern Conference records for passing efficiency and rushing touchdowns. As a result of his accomplishments on the football field, Tebow became perhaps the most recognizable ambassador for the University of Florida and currently is a prominent professional quarterback in the National Football League.
It is a bit sobering to realize that if a student athlete like Tebow were residing in Louisiana today, the LHSAA would be opposing legislation that would allow him, as a home-schooled student, to play high school football and perhaps pursue an athletic scholarship to a university like LSU. In other words, if the LHSAA were to prevail here and have Louisiana’s legislation declared unconstitutional, the LHSAA would thwart the development of home-schooled student athletes like Tebow in Louisiana.