The Cost Of Choice: How Louisiana's Voucher Program Steered Families Into D and F Private Schools

May 7, 2019

Politicians promised the Louisiana Scholarship Program would offer low-income students a way out of bad public schools. Instead, the program steered families into low-performing private schools with little oversight. 

'The Cost of Choice' is the result of a reporting collaboration between NOLA.com | The Times-Picayune, WVUE Fox 8 News, WWNO and Reveal from The Center for Investigative Reporting.

Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal beamed with pride in April 2012, as he signed into law one of the most sweeping school choice expansions in the nation.

The law was lauded by the American Federation for Children, then chaired by future Education Secretary Betsy DeVos, and other school choice advocates. Like Jindal, they said it would free countless lower-income children from the worst public schools by allowing them to use state tax dollars in the form of vouchers to pay tuition at private schools, where they would ostensibly receive a better education.

“Our children do not have time to wait,” Jindal had said as he spent some of his waning political capital on what he felt would become a major part of his political legacy in Louisiana. “They only grow up once, and they have one shot to receive a quality education.”

Seven years later, however, the $40-million-a-year Louisiana Scholarship Program has failed to live up to its billing. The nearly 6,900 students who’ve left public schools have instead been placed into a system with numerous failing private schools that receive little oversight, a months-long examination by a coalition of local and national media organizations has found.

Two-thirds of all students in the voucher system attended schools where they performed at a “D” or “F” level last school year, according to a data analysis by NOLA.com | The Times-Picayune, WVUE Fox 8 News, WWNO and Reveal from The Center for Investigative Reporting.

“Bobby Jindal did not set up the Louisiana Scholarship Program for success. He set it up for low-performing schools to get subsidized and to stay open,” said Andre Perry, a fellow at The Brookings Institution and formerly the associate director for education initiatives at Loyola University’s Institute for Quality and Equity in Education.

Public schools in Louisiana each receive a grade from the Louisiana Department of Education based on their students’ performance on standardized tests. Our analysis calculated the grades that private and parochial schools would receive based on the test scores of their voucher students.

Not a single school in the voucher program received an A or B. Three received a C. Of the remaining schools, 19 got a D and 15 got an F, based on the Louisiana Department of Education rating system.

In some cases, students left “C” public schools to attend private schools with “D” and “F” ratings. For example, in 2017 seven children attending the public KIPP Believe in New Orleans left the school, which got a “C” grade from the state. Those seven children, state records show, went to St. Joan of Arc, a school where voucher students tested at a “D” grade level.

In almost all of the private schools with a score assigned by the state, voucher students performed below the statewide average for their peers in public schools, the news organizations’ review found.

There are few consequences for schools whose voucher students consistently perform poorly on standardized tests. Private schools with voucher students performing at an average “F” grade are not allowed to take in new voucher students the following school year, but they can keep all students already enrolled there.

Advocates for the voucher system say it affords families an opportunity to give their children a religious education in a safe environment, without the violence that sometimes occurs at the lowest-performing public schools. Some questioned the state testing and grading methods that result in poor scores for the private schools — the same tests are administered in all public schools in Louisiana — while also arguing that there’s more to educating students than test scores.

“It’s all about choice,” said Ann Duplessis, a former state senator from New Orleans and the architect of the voucher system. “So this idea is to create an opportunity for parents to take the money that’s already being spent and to allow that parent or that family to then go and shop.”

State Education Superintendent John White declined repeated requests for an interview.

Duplessis maintained that parents are well-informed about the performance of the schools to which they are deciding to send their children.

The state Department of Education posts information on the performance of voucher students, by school, on the same website where it publishes public schools’ performance data. But while the data for public schools includes a letter grade and detailed test results, the state posts only the voucher students’ raw score for private schools, without the much-easier-to-understand letter-grade equivalent.

The news organizations took that raw data and analyzed it to give each school a letter grade, applying the scale the state uses for public schools.

Reporters interviewed parents from five different schools and all were unaware of the grade that their child’s school had received. Janice Bradley, whose son attend McMillian’s First Steps Academy in New Orleans, said she has been generally pleased with the school, which has a 100 percent voucher enrollment.

Bradley expressed dismay after a reporter showed her a report from the state that outlined sanctions against the school and showed its “D” grade.

“Oh really,” she said after reading the letter. “Oh, really,” she repeated. “It’s very shocking.”

The analysis also shows that some low-performing private schools exist solely because of the voucher program. In two schools — McMillian’s and St. Benedict the Moor in New Orleans — every single student came through the voucher program, state data show. Students at both schools scored at the equivalent of a “D” grade.

Perry said the voucher program risks morphing into a shadow public school system operating outside the accountability of the state.

“Choice is an American value,” Perry said. “We all want options. But we have to counter them with fairness.”

BAD GRADES

Jindal launched vouchers in Louisiana through a New Orleans pilot program in 2008, heralding it as a key part of a larger school choice movement that also included the expansion of independently run charter schools. For Jindal, who harbored presidential ambitions, school vouchers provided an attractive issue for conservative voters.

He was not alone. More than two dozen other states offer some sort of school choice program, 14 of which are variations of traditional school voucher programs, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures.

After a highly charged debate in the 2012 legislative session, Jindal pushed through the bill to expand the voucher system statewide, despite intense opposition from public school teachers who said it would take money away from public schools.

The American Federation for Children, the voucher advocacy nonprofit founded by DeVos’ billionaire family, issued a statement after the governor signed it into law: “Thousands of students who were stuck in schools that were not working for them will now have an opportunity to attend a school that fits their needs and, ultimately, allows them to succeed.”

The voucher provision on House Bill 976 allowed for lower-income students in poorly performing public schools to use vouchers to pay private school tuition. Any student in a “C,” “D” or “F” public school — as determined by the state’s accountability system — is eligible for vouchers. The student’s family must also have a household income that does not exceed 250 percent of the federal poverty level. In 2018, that threshold was nearly $63,000 for a family of four.

For private schools, the state scores are available only for voucher students — non-voucher students do not have to take the state’s tests. To analyze the state data, the news organizations tallied scores assigned to schools in the program for 2017-18, the most recent data available, and applied the state’s grade scale for public schools. Reporters also reviewed state records to assess whether the worst schools are being held accountable.

About two-thirds of voucher schools have no grades because they have too few voucher students, less than 10 per grade, to meet state requirements for receiving a performance score. However, a vast majority of the students in the voucher system — 67 percent — attend schools that the news organizations were able to grade.

Among schools that were graded, 92 percent received a “D” or “F” score, according to state records. Those schools are spread throughout the state and include both private and parochial schools.

Some schools, including St. Katherine-Drexel Academy in New Orleans, Evangel Christian Academy in Caddo Parish and Jehovah-Jireh Academy in East Baton Rouge, received “F” grades for three school years in a row, records show.

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A four-year study commissioned by the state and conducted by University of Arkansas researchers also found that voucher students performed lower than a control group on the state’s tests. It also found both groups enrolled in college at the same rate.

“We basically judge the two groups as being equivalent on college enrollment but it’s kind of interesting that the voucher students’ math test scores in particular ended up quite a bit lower than the control group students,” said Patrick J. Wolf, one of the researchers and a professor of education policy.

But the study also found applicants to the voucher program were disadvantaged relative to the average Louisiana student. And it partially echoed the contention that public school curricula are more aligned to the student assessments. Wolf said schools teach concepts not always on the same sequence.

“It’s possible that some of the negative test score effect is because some of the private school students just haven’t gotten to the material that the public school students have and are being tested on,” he said, though he added that researchers don’t know how big of a role that play in the test results.

Some supporters of vouchers said placing the emphasis only on student test scores provides a jaded view of the program’s worthiness. The testing methodology created for public schools does not always match up with the curricula at most private and parochial schools that participate in the program, they said. As a result, Duplessis said, public schools are more likely to “teach to the test” than private schools.

“I think one of the causes of the grades not being in line is that we’re not comparing apples to apples,” said Duplessis, who is now president of the pro-voucher Louisiana Federation for Children.

LACK OF INFORMATION

To open a charter school in Louisiana, you need to fill out an application that is hundreds of pages long and seeks detailed financial and academic information. It requires in-depth explanations of the school’s financing plans, its educational programs, philosophy, instruction methods, accountability goals, professional development standards for staff and biographies of school administrators.

It’s a lot easier to participate in the voucher program. The paperwork to become a voucher school has about a dozen pages and seeks relatively scant details, with no requirement to prove financial stability or standards for staff. Instead, the form asks mostly yes and no answers.

“This is abhorrent,” Perry said when presented with a copy of a typical application to become a voucher school in Louisiana. “You can’t tell me a school has been properly vetted with this amount of pages.”

Additionally, the number of schools with too few voucher students to qualify for a grade has risen year-to-year since 2015-16, statistics show. The rising number of schools falling into the “no grade” category lessens the effect of the already tepid accountability aspect of the program, as there is no publicly available data to judge their performance.

   

Concerns that the publicly funded voucher program lacks transparency and accountability date back to 2012, when Jindal sought to expand it.

Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal speak at education conference held by the American Federation for Children on May 3, 2012.
Credit Aristide Economopoulos / The Star-Ledger

Some critics said parents don’t always realize they could be choosing a lower performing school with their vouchers because of a deep-rooted notion among many Louisianans that private schools are inherently better than public schools, and the preference of many parents for schools that incorporate religious education.

Louisiana is among the highest states in the nation in percentage of students attending private schools. In metro New Orleans, one of every four students were in private school in 2015, compared to one in 10 nationwide, according to the U.S. Census.

“Where you send your child to school is an important decision,” said Jan Moller, executive director of the Louisiana Budget Project, a nonprofit that monitors and reports on public policy and how it affects low-income families. “Parents need as much information as possible and my biggest concern has always been, ‘Do parents have enough information about the private schools to make a truly informed decision about what’s best for their child?’”

While some surveys show many voucher school parents are satisfied with the program, others are not so pleased. Destiny Hinton, whose son has attended Our Lady of Prompt Succor in Jefferson Parish for three years, said he did well in his first year as a kindergartner, but for the past two years his teachers have told her he has fallen behind.

Hinton said instead of making sure he understood the material, his teachers told her they just changed his grades to boost his confidence. She said now she’s looking for a better school.

“It’s very upsetting especially when someone’s telling you that he’s not where he needs to be and it’s not getting better,” she said.

A LIFELINE FOR PRIVATE SCHOOLS

The voucher system, which was designed as an exit hatch for lower-income students from failing public schools, has in many ways morphed into a lifeline for some private and parochial schools.

For the 2017-18 school year, 12 private and parochial schools in the program had voucher student enrollments of 85 percent or more. Many other schools had at least 50 percent voucher student enrollments.

The review found the voucher program has become especially important for some Catholic schools run by the Archdiocese of New Orleans, which have faced declining enrollment in recent years. Voucher students now make up about 11 percent of the system’s nearly 35,000 students, archdiocese officials said.

Perry said instead of providing a better education for poor kids, the program is essentially propping up some private schools that would be forced to close without the infusion of tax dollars provided by vouchers.

“When less than 15 percent of your students are actually paying, it’s a private-run, publicly subsidized school,” Perry said.

The 6,893 voucher students for the 2017-18 school year, the most recent voucher data available, were enrolled in private and parochial schools throughout the state, with the heaviest concentration — 36 percent — in Orleans Parish. East Baton Rouge Parish had the second highest with 18% and Jefferson Parish had the third highest, at 12 percent of voucher students.

Supporters argue that the voucher concept is a sound one. While public charter schools also give families choice, private schools have more flexibility in staffing, budgeting, curriculum, academic standards and accountability systems, they said. This flexibility fosters the best environment for market competition and cost efficiency, supporters of the program said.

Dr. RaeNell Houston, the Archdiocese of New Orleans’ superintendent of schools, said the archdiocese got involved in the voucher program when the pilot launched in 2008. Twenty-nine schools in the archdiocese now accept voucher students.

“Our church teaches that parents are the first and primary educators of our children and therefore we support parental choice,” Houston said. “For some families, that’s public education, for some it’s Catholic schools and for some families it’s other non-public schools. “Putting the ball in the parents’ court is what we aim to do and what we support. Parents know what’s best for their children and their families.”

In New Orleans, the program became a way to escape a public education system that was among the lowest-scoring in the state, Duplessis said. She saw vouchers as a creative way to address the problem after Hurricane Katrina flooded most of the city’s schools in 2005. The idea of allowing parents to shop for a school using public money already available was appealing to many.

“We had families that told me in those early years as we were designing the program, ‘We’re stuck. I can’t afford to put my child in a Catholic school,’ even if that Catholic school wasn’t as good as the public school. In their minds, it was a matter of safety” and the Christian environment, she said.

“I’m very proud of being able to begin a conversation that no one wanted to have 10 years ago,” she said.

So was Jindal. At a May 15, 2013, pro-voucher rally on the Capitol steps in Baton Rouge, the governor stood in front of a row of microphones surrounded by dozens of children in private school uniforms to laud a Louisiana Supreme Court decision that deemed the voucher program legal.

“This is about making sure every little boy and every little girl out here has a chance to go to a great school,” Jindal said. “This is about making sure every mom and every dad gets the chance to make the decision on where their children get to get their education.”

But even DeVos, whose support for vouchers was a reason President Donald Trump picked her as education secretary, has expressed misgivings about Louisiana’s program. At a question-and-answer session during the national conference of the Education Writers Association in Baltimore on Monday, DeVos blamed the poor results of Louisiana’s program on its architects.

“I would just say that the Louisiana program was not very well conceived,” DeVos said. “It has discouraged many schools from participating in it and, in fact, has encouraged some schools that probably would not have been parents’ first choices if they’d been given a full range of choices.”

'The Cost of Choice' is the result of a reporting collaboration between NOLA.com | The Times-Picayune, WVUE Fox 8 News, WWNO and Reveal from The Center for Investigative Reporting. The series is the first to grow out of Reveal’s Local Labs initiative, which works to establish lasting collaborations in communities across the United States.

Support for WWNO's education reporting comes from Entergy Corporation