Louisiana lawmakers went out of their way to add a $46 million line item to the state budget to allow more students from under-performing public schools go to private school through the voucher program championed by Gov. Bobby Jindal.
Both Wisconsin and Ohio have just pushed through major expansions of their voucher programs too. And both states -- like Louisiana -- are headed by Republican governors.
Sarah Carr, a writer for the Hechinger Report, says these governors are being strategic in their support of vouchers.
"It’s a way for them to make a name for themselves pursuing an education agenda that’s typically been embraced by conservatives and trying even to some extent to one-up each other in creating a bigger and bolder voucher program."
Carr says the crucial question now is whether vouchers will continue to provide tactical value for their Republican backers if the programs fail.
Front-end Accountability Short
Louisiana's expanded voucher program came under scrutiny from the start, with reports last year that schools the Department of Education had initially approved to participate did not have the space to accommodate all the students they wanted to enroll and that some were teaching creationism to the exclusion of evolution. New Living Word in Ruston was among the schools called into question.
Some critics are feeling validated now that New Living Word has been booted from the program. The school broke the rules, according to state officials, by charging $6,300 for voucher students while it was only collecting $550 for non-voucher students.
"I do think this is evidence that maybe the front-end accountability needs to be tightened," said Carr. "It's clear that [Louisiana's voucher program] is vulnerable to outright fraud."
Academics are Not the Only Factor in Choice
Carr goes on to say it's also clear that private schools are not achieving "miraculous results" with voucher students. On the most recent state LEAP tests, voucher students lagged behind the state average by nearly 30 points -- though Carr points out the comparison is skewed by the fact voucher students are coming from the lowest-performing public schools.
Voucher diehards argue that ultimately the market will sort it all out -- that parents won't send their children to schools that aren't educating them well.
But Carr has seen parents of all income levels pick private schools for a variety of reasons, that have nothing to do with test scores or other straightforward measures: they think private school are more prestigious, they want a school with a religious affiliation, or they're concerned about structure or discipline.
Vouchers Will Continue to Grow
Parents like choices, Carr says. That and Jindal's willingness to spend his political capital on vouchers mean the program will likely continue to grow in Louisiana.
Sarah Carr talks about her book, "Hope Against Hope", the story of public education in post-Katrina New Orleans, at Baton Rouge Gallery Sunday, July 14, at 4 p.m.