Louisiana Governor John Bel Edwards is pledging to make changes to the state’s school voucher program after a WWNO joint investigation found most students in the program end up in low-performing private schools.
The state’s school voucher program, also known as the Louisiana Scholarship Program, gives financially-strapped families vouchers to cover private school tuition. To be eligible students have to be entering kindergarten, or attend a public school with a letter grade of C, D or F.
WWNO’s Jess Clark partnered with reporters from Nola.com|The Times-Picayune and Fox 8-WVUE for the investigation. Fox 8's Lee Zurik recently sat down with Edwards.
Part of their conversation is transcribed below.
Zurik: Overall what are your impressions of the voucher program?
Edwards: Look, I know it was designed to promote choice, and some people think that's a good in and of itself. I think that it needs to promote choice that is both informed and quality. And it was a hastily designed program. They didn't even design it in a way initially that was legal, and that sort of sheds light on the whole effort. And now that we're several years into it, and we can see some results, I would hope that even the strongest proponents of the voucher system would agree that we need to do more to make sure that before schools can participate in the voucher program they have to be quality schools, and that parents ought to be armed with the information they need to make an informed choice about whether to take their child out of public school and put them into a particular voucher school.
Zurik: So these schools that have 60, 70, 80, 90, 100 percent voucher school enrollment - is that fair that these public funds are essentially propping up and keeping these schools open?
Edwards: Whether it's fair or not, if the school is performing well, I think we could accept it. But if you've got 80, 90 100 percent of kids in a school that are there on a voucher, and the school is not performing well, that is unacceptable. And by the way, you're not addressing anything in this interview today that we didn't talk about in 2012, when this legislation was moving through the legislature - we brought up all of these points. There was just an unwillingness to accommodate any of these other points of view about whether we should allow schools to be comprised predominantly of voucher students, or whether we should make sure that there are letter grades assigned to the schools on the voucher side so that that informs the decisions that the parents are going to make. I mean, all of this was discussed, but it wasn't something that [state school] superintendent [John] White, most of the BESE board [State Board of Elementary and Secondary Education] and quite frankly most of the legislature at that point was willing to give on.
Zurik: If a school has 60, 70, 80 voucher enrollment, and they're a D or an F school, you don't think they should be in the program?
Edwards: Well, I think they should be given some ultimatum to improve their performance within a certain period of time in a way that is verifiable, else they would lose the ability to continue to operate. That's what I believe we ought to be doing, because we ought to be trying to improve educational outcomes. Remember, this was all about giving kids an opportunity to go to a great school. That's what my predecessor [former Gov. Bobby Jindal] said. Well, I don't think anybody contends that many of these schools are great schools. And we ought to be trying to improve educational outcomes, and whether it's a public dollar attached to it, we ought to be looking at the return on investment - not just whether the parent is exercising a choice.
Zurik: Your predecessor did say that - you're right. And you're governor now. Assuming you get reelected, what's your pledge, what do you hope to do next session, if anything?
Edwards: One of those things is to end what they call the "kindergarten loophole." Because the whole premise of the program was to give parents of kids in failing schools a choice; for those kindergarteners who could otherwise attend an A or B school, for them to be allowed to go to a voucher school that we know very little about, or what we know is unsatisfactory, that ought to be changed. And by the way, it wasn't a loophole, that was by design - that was a designed feature of the program. The other thing we need to do is we need to put these schools on a plan to either improve or to - not just not be able to accept new students - but to accept any students on vouchers. Again, it ought to be about not just choice, but about a quality choice.
The investigation into the Louisiana Scholarship Program was a collaboration by WWNO, Fox 8-WVUE, NOLA.com|The Times-Picayune, and Reveal from the Center for Investigative Reporting.
Entergy Corporation supports WWNO’s education reporting.