Q&A: Why Louisiana's Voucher Program Isn't Working

May 9, 2019

The Louisiana Scholarship Program, also known as the state’s school voucher program, promises families a way out of struggling public schools. But a joint-investigation with WWNO, Fox 8 News and NOLA.com|The Times-Picayune, reveals the program steered families into private schools with low test scores and little oversight. Our investigation, The Cost of Choice, was part of a collaboration organized by the investigative newsroom, Reveal.

The investigation showed most students in the voucher program attend private schools that got a “D” or “F” from the state based on their test scores. In many cases students left public schools for private ones with lower letter grades. 

WWNO’s Jess Clark sat down with Fox 8’s Lee Zurik to talk about flaws in the design of the voucher program. Below is a Q&A based on their conversation.

Q: Before we get into the voucher program specifics, let's take a step back and talk about what those school letter grades mean and why they’re important.

The letter grades are the way the state judges how students and schools are doing. The grades are based on state standardized tests that students take testing skills that education experts say students should know. For example, the state has determined that every third-grader should know that 8 x 5=40. It's concepts and skills like that are being tested. And if the kids aren't performing well on the test, it's an indicator that they're not learning those concepts.

Q: Who says the Louisiana voucher program isn't working?

Research shows students in the voucher program fall behind their public-school peers, especially in math. And our investigation shows most kids in the voucher program attend private schools that earned “D”s or “F”s from the state. Education researcher and activist Andre Perry, who works at the Brookings Institution, says the program is not serving students. Even U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos - a huge voucher proponent - came out this week against the program, saying while she still supports voucher programs overall, Louisiana’s was "not very well conceived." (Although, DeVos' pro-school choice organization The American Federation for Children initially lauded the voucher program when it was signed into law 2012.)

Q: What do education experts say about the voucher program's design flaws - why it might be "not very well conceived"?

The program was supposed to allow kids to go to better private schools. But just because a school is private, doesn’t mean it’s better than a public one. There are a lot of private schools in Louisiana that aren’t necessarily providing kids with a high-quality education. And many of those schools have been losing enrollment for decades - especially in New Orleans, where families are leaving some Catholic schools for charter schools. So for those schools that are losing enrollment, they were really eager to participate in the voucher program because they needed students to stay afloat.

Data shows schools that participate in the Louisiana voucher program are more likely to be lower-tuition schools losing enrollment before the voucher program started, which can be an indicator of lower quality. On the flip-side, the private schools that cost a lot of money - which is generally an indicator of high quality - think Newman, Brother Martin, Jesuit - those schools don’t accept voucher students. So as a voucher student, your options are actually pretty limited.

Q: Do we know why high-quality private schools don’t opt into the program?

There has been research on that, and it shows that even though these schools cost a lot more per year than the voucher will pay for, money is actually not the main reason they don't opt in. The main reason high-quality, high tuition private schools don’t participate is that they don’t want to lose control over who gets into their school. The way the voucher program is set up, it’s a lottery; if there’s a seat and a voucher student wants it, they get it. No entrance interviews, or admissions testing, or anything like that. Private schools don’t like that. And then the other main reason is that high-quality private schools don’t want to participate in state testing. That’s a non-starter.

Q: But if the state didn’t have the testing requirement, we’d have no way of knowing how well voucher schools are serving students. You might bring in the high-quality schools, but then how would we know if they or any other voucher school were giving students a quality education?

That’s the tension. Testing requirements are supposed to be a check on potentially low-performing private voucher schools. But they also scare off high-quality private schools that don’t like state testing.

Q: So is there a way to fix this? To bring in better private schools, and keep out bad ones?

Researcher Patrick Wolf at the University of Arkansas evaluated the voucher programs in both Louisiana and Washington, D.C. He says one way would be to allow private schools to test differently. He says in D.C. for example, every year, the district brings in a sample of kids from the private voucher schools and a sample from the public schools to take a nationally standardized test. And that’s how they evaluate how well private schools are serving kids. And the D.C. program does have buy-in from higher-quality private schools.

Q: What about the application process? Does the state vet private schools that want to participate?

Our reporting shows it’s pretty easy to become a private voucher school. All you have to do is fill out a 16-page form. It includes many 'yes' or 'no' questions, as well as questions about enrollment numbers and tuition. And you are basically approved to accept voucher students. For example, Carlie Care Kids, a preschool in Terrytown, La., submitted its application a few months ago to become a voucher school serving kindergarten and first grade. They got approved, and next year the for-profit company will open an elementary school with kindergarten and first grade, run out of a duplex.

Q: How does that compare to opening a charter school? 

A charter school is a privately-operated public school. To open a charter school, the application process can take more than a year. Education researcher and activist Andre Perry started one, and he likened it to writing a book. You have to outline curriculum, philosophy, write up thorough backgrounds on each board member, and include plans for finances and staffing. So both charter schools and voucher schools are taking public money to educate kids in private settings, but the standards are very different.

This investigation was a collaboration between NOLA.com, Fox 8 News and WWNO. The collaboration was organized by the investigative newsroom, Reveal.

Tune into Fox 8 tonight at 10 p.m. or log onto NOLA.com for the next installment of the investigation, where we look at just how easy it is to become a private voucher school.

Entergy Corporation supports WWNO's education reporting.