“Financial Irresponsibility and Incompetence”: Louisiana Superintendent John White Perfectly Describes School Voucher Program

Yesterday, after more than a year of sustained criticism in the state, national, and even international media, Louisiana Superintendent John White (no relation) announced the Department of Education was banning the New Living Word School in Ruston, Louisiana from participating in the so-called Student Scholarships for Educational Excellence Program (the SSEEP), more commonly known as the school voucher program. Under the direction of Governor Bobby Jindal and the majority Republican state legislature, Superintendent White is responsible for rolling out and implementing the most expansive school voucher program in the nation’s history, a program that potentially qualifies as many as 56% of Louisiana students.

And until very recently, New Living Word was the single-largest voucher school in the entire program, having initially been approved to triple its enrollment and provide 193 voucher slots. After considerable discussion, the state reduced the number of slots to 165, and according to Superintendent White, this year, the school enrolled 93 voucher students, a substantial reduction but one that still accounted for nearly half of the entire student body and still cost the State of Louisiana approximately $604,500 in only one year.

In May of 2012, less than a week after Superintendent White announced the list of schools qualified under the voucher program, Barbara Leader of the Monroe News-Star directed attention to the single-largest voucher school, New Living Word in nearby Ruston. Ms. Leader’s story (which has since been placed behind a paywall) was subsequently and quickly picked up in the national media, including the Washington Post. On May 19, 2012, Valerie Strauss of the Washington Post published “A scary (and telling) school voucher story,” recapitulating much of Ms. Leader’s findings in The News Star. Quoting from Ms. Strauss (bold mine):

One of those schools is the church-affiliated New Living Word School, which was approved to increase its student enrollment from 122 to 315 — even though it doesn’t have the space, computers or the teachers to handle the students, according to the News-Star.

This means that this school will have 100 more voucher slots than any other school in Louisiana. The state Department of Education chose schools to qualify for vouchers without visiting any campuses.

According to the News-Star, Rev. Jerry Baldwin, the school’s principal and pastor of New Living Word Ministries, said that construction will begin this summer on a metal school building though he isn’t sure when it will be done. Current students now attend class in rooms used by the church’s Sunday school. If the new building is not finished by the fall, he said, new students can hold class in the church gym.

The school’s mission, according to its Web site, is: “The mission of NLWM School is to provide a foundation built on biblical principles that will create an atmosphere for scholastic advancement and spiritual development.”

As I mentioned last October (bold mine):

The Monroe News-Star broke the story of the New Living Word School, which received more voucher spots than any other school in the state and which relies on DVDs instead of teachers and is housed in a church gymnasium. John White approved increasing New Living Word’s enrollment by 258%, without ever even stepping foot in its campusA few days ago, we learned that New Living Word, in order to accommodate the massive influx of new students, will be dividing its chapel into four classrooms.

After the story made national headlines, leaked e-mails revealed that Superintendent White had proposed to his colleagues that they create a news story about the process by which schools qualified for vouchers in order to “muddy up the narrative. In almost any other state, the explicit acknowledgment by the head of a state agency to manufacture a false story to the public would be grounds for termination, but John White kept his job. And, instead of apologizing, he feigned outrage that his private e-mails had been released to the media.

Instead of admitting that New Living Word should have never qualified for the program in the first place and instead of acknowledging that neither he nor any member of his executive staff had actually inspected the school’s facilities and curriculum prior to awarding the school hundreds and hundreds of thousands of dollars in taxpayer funding and placing them in charge of the education of nearly 100 additional school children, Superintendent White was more concerned about having his staff “muddy up a narrative.” John White was more concerned with his public relations campaign, even if it meant willfully deceiving the public on the chronology and the narrative of events, than he was about addressing the fundamental concerns that were expressed all over the nation about this school: Its desire for rapid expansion seemed like a money grab; it clearly did not have the needed space or facilities (again, they were subdividing the chapel into four different classrooms and also conducting classes in the church gymnasium); the school heavily relied on DVD instructions instead of actual teachers, and it utilized a roundly discredited and ridiculed academic curriculum.

Louisiana education activist Zack Kopplin has singled out New Living Word numerous times on national television news shows and national news publications as a prime example of the Louisiana voucher program’s lack of accountability and academic standards.

Unfortunately for Superintendent White, the mud stopped sticking to his narrative.

A third-party, out-of-state accounting consultant broke the news that many of us had seen from hundreds of miles away: New Living Word School had been, essentially, defrauding the government, charging significantly more in tuition for voucher students than for others and bilking nearly $400,000 in a single year from Louisiana taxpayers. Quoting (bold mine):

White said the audit revealed that the non-scholarship students at the school were not paying the $6300 tuition per student that the school was charging the state.

Most of the non-scholarship student’s tuition was reportedly covered by in-kind contributions which White said were overvalued.

Those students were neither paying nor was anyone paying on their behalf any amount near $6300,” he said. “How they calculated the charge was inflated and egregious to a point of valuing real estate at a level significantly higher than the market rate.”

According to White, the school now owes the state $378,000 that the audit shows the school overcharged.

No other school in the Louisiana Scholarship Program was found to have violations similar to New Living Word.

Although it’s easy and completely understandable to feel outraged by New Living Word’s exploitation of the voucher program, I find it impossible to have any sympathy for Superintendent White. Time after time, for over a year, he was warned repeatedly about this particular school; he was routinely criticized for the lack of oversight and accountability employed by the Department of Education, for his decision to not conduct even a bare modicum of due diligence on schools that sought hundreds of thousands, if not millions, in state government funding. Remember, the voucher program, ostensibly, was sold to Louisiana citizens as a way of ensuring children have access to better educational opportunities.

As Zack Kopplin’s research reveals, at least a third of voucher schools are teaching from anti-scientific and anti-historical textbooks, and as we learned just last month, voucher students scored almost thirty points below average on the LEAP examination.

In his statement to the media yesterday, Superintendent White also said, “In my view it is financially irresponsible according to the law. In my view it is incompetence and we will not tolerate it.”

I’d submit that before Superintendent White lectures anyone else on financial irresponsibility or incompetence, he should first read up on negligence and dereliction of duty.

I, for one, do not believe that New Living Word is the only school in the program that charges voucher students more than non-voucher students. Stay tuned.