New Orleans experiment points to academic progress as union vows suit over funding formula

Even if legislation aimed at converting the Orleans Parish scholarship program into a statewide school voucher system prevails over intense opposition, it will remain limited in scope, according to key lawmakers and top education officials who favor the policy change. The voucher proposal, and other reform initiatives, will be considered in the House and Senate Education committees this week

Under the legislation enacted in 2008, the Student Scholarships for Educational Excellence (SSEE) program provides low-income families in Orleans Parish with the option to select a public or private school. Over 1,800 students in grades K-6 have received scholarships in the current 2011-2012 school year.

To be eligible, household income cannot exceed 250 percent of the federal poverty guidelines, which would be $55,875 for a family of four in 2011. Moreover, the student must have attended an “F” rated public school the previous year, or be entering kindergarten. The Louisiana Department of Education has published a list of the schools participating in Orleans Parish program.

Sen. Conrad Appel, the Metaire Republican who chairs the Senate Education Committee, ardently supports the principle of school choice, but also cautions against the idea that the voucher plan will immediately impact a substantial number of students. The proposal should be viewed within the wider context of other reforms, he suggests. Appel also said it was important to remain mindful of some the lessons that can be derived out of the experiment in Orleans Parish.

“When you compare the voucher proposal with the legislation that could be used to open more charter schools, the modifications to teacher accountability, and the [re-defined] relationship between school boards, superintendents and principals, we are talking about a very small change,” Appel said. “I think the voucher concept is very valid, and it does create opportunities for certain families, but in practice what we are talking about is not as far reaching as the other proposals that are part of the education reform package.”

Under Sen. Appel’s bill (SB 597), any Louisiana student enrolled in a school with a C grade or lower would be eligible to apply for a voucher. That student must also be part of a household with an income that does exceed 250 percent of the federal poverty rate. This means about 380,000 students would be eligible to apply, according to state figures.

Louisiana Superintendent John White, who supports the new voucher plan, declined to give an exact estimate on the number of new seats that would be open until after education officials have the opportunity survey schools. In media interviews, he has previously said that it would be “reasonable” to anticipate that 2,000 additional students could take advantage of the vouchers statewide. The Archdiocese of New Orleans has also concluded that about 2,000 additional seats would open up in Catholic schools across the state.

“Based on the number of private schools we have in Louisiana, and what we see in other states, it [the number of voucher seats available] could be much more than that.”

The feedback Eric Lewis, state director of the Black Alliance for Educational Opportunity (BAEO), has received from his constituents in New Orleans very much weighs in favor of a statewide effort, he said.

“There has been stability and consistentcy over the past few years between our scholarship students and the schools they are attending,” he said. “Obviously, the Catholic schools will remain an important part of this effort, since they have an existing network.”

BAEO conducted a survey by direct mail this past December that showed over 90 percent of parents with scholarship students were pleased with their child’s school and their academic progress. The Pelican Institute has also released a study that shows Louisiana students stand to benefit from school vouchers and other choice initiatives.

Sister Carol Shively, superintendent of the Diocese of Shreveport, is ambitious to see school choices initiatives, including vouchers, gain traction. But she also acknowledges that there are capacity and infrastructure limits that must be incorporated into any policy changes.

“We need to fully assess the number of seats that are available, and which grades these students will be going into,” she said. “We certainly do not want to be in a position where we accept children, but are unable to serve them. After all, they are already coming in from a bad situation.”

She added:

“There should be choice for all families, that’s  a critical part of being an American and a citizen of Louisiana.  It’s important that we offer a full range of options including virtual schools, charter schools, religious schools and public schools. We can learn a lot from the diocese in New Orleans because it worked to make the program affordable, even with limited resources. We have to stay true to our families and who we are as educators. And, we also need to fully assess the number of seats that are available.”

Robert Welch, executive director of the Louisiana Association of Independent Schools, concurs. He favors a gradual, incremental approach to the voucher program.

“I do not believe that wholesale implementation is likely to be very successful,” he said. “We need to test the waters in each community and monitor them. Our schools will not be able to shape this [the voucher system] around a large number of students overnight.”

Some critics of the voucher legislation have argued that public school accountability standards should apply to private schools that accept voucher students.

“If you are going to make an informed choice, it has to be made on an apples to apples comparison,” Les Landon, director of public relations for the Louisiana Federation of Teachers (LFT), said. “This does not exist unless the schools that accept voucher students are as transparent as their public school counterparts. If they don’t issue letter grades for the private and religious schools, and they don’t have same accountability standards that public schools do, parents will be making a choice just based an uninformed preference.”

But Welch, who also serves as the headmaster for the Dunham School, a Christian college preparatory academy, is not convinced this kind of measurement for private institutions would be very meaningful.

“Private schools already have a lot of accountability,” he said. “Otherwise parents would just vote with their feet and go elsewhere. If we want to see different results in our education system, that means change is not optional, it is required. And part of the change means giving parents the ability to choose the best school for their child.”

Part of the problem with applying the public school accountability standards to private schools is that the private schools rely on different tests, Marian Fertitta, superintendent of the Diocese of Houma-Thibodaux, explained.  The public schools use a criterion reference test, whereas the private schools rely on standardized national tests, she said.

Fertitta estimates that her diocese could handle about 150 voucher students. She also predicts that when the legislation is finalized it will include students from D and F schools, but not C schools. Fertitta is also hopeful that the funding mechanism for the statewide program will help to alleviate the financial burden to Catholic schools.

“What we have learned out of New Orleans is that this is costing the churches a good amount of money,” she observed. “The schools worked hard to keep costs down, but the actual costs of educating a child exceeds the tuition costs.”

There is a gap between the tuition and the actual costs for voucher students that ranges anywhere from $2,500 to $3,000 in Orleans Parish, according to the diocese.

Funds for the pilot program, which now totals just under $10 million a year, were secured as a special appropriation. But in February, the Board of Elementary and Secondary Education (BESE), the state’s top school board, approved a key change that would allow for the state to cover vouchers with the funds now set aside for public schools.

This means the Minimum Foundation Program (MFP), which is used to decide how many dollars per pupil are sent to local school districts, will now be applied toward private school tuition. The MFP, in combination with what is financed through tax dollars at the local level, now averages $8,500 a student, according to state education department figures.

Rep. Steve Carter (R-Baton Rouge), who is sponsoring the companion legislation for the vouchers on the House side, sees an upshot in the new funding arrangement.

“In a lot of cases the tuition in the parochial schools is going to be less than what the voucher is going to be,” he said. “This is going to result in cost savings for the state.”

Shively, the Shreveport Diocese superintendent, said there is good reason to be encouraged about the voucher expansion, despite infrastructure limits.

“As Catholic schools, we have centuries behind us to prove that we don’t waste money,” she observed. “We can all win in this situation, the parents, the students, the teachers and the state.”

But Landon, the LFT spokesman, said the new funding arrangement is unconstitutional. Unless the state legislature reverses BESE, his organization will file suit, he said.

“Our concern is the Louisiana Constitution specifically says the Minimum Foundation Fund (MFF) is established to support public elementary and secondary schools and the word public is in there specifically,” Landon said. “We strongly feel that the use of these funds for private and religious school education violates the Louisiana Constitution.”

LFT has sent a letter to every member of the state legislature asking them to reject the funding formula approved by BESE.

“We believe vouchers are a very bad policy idea, and on that grounds alone, we will always oppose vouchers, or the expansion of vouchers,” Landon said.

White, the Louisiana superintendent, views the potential litigation as an unfortunate distraction.

“Our concern is with how to best educate the students,” he said. If someone wants to file a suit, then the courts can review the case, but I’m most focused on doing what best services our kids, especially those who are not being  serviced well. I’m not particularly interested in waiting for someone to file a lawsuit before we arrive at a better option for these families.”

Lindsey Burke, an education policy analyst with the Heritage Foundation, views the union’s objection to the financial arrangement supporting vouchers as a “red herring.”

“Unions are effectively admitting that they can’t keep kids when they have a choice,” she said. “When the money follows the child, whether it’s through a voucher or other school choice mechanism, then yes, the public school loses money, but they also have fewer students. So I don’t see the objection here as a very strong argument.”

Public officials who have failed to deliver a quality education should not be permitted to interfere with parental decision making, White, the state superintendent, said.

“When a government has failed to serve a family well, then that government can’t claim the privilege of determining where that child should go to school next,” he argued. “The parents should have that privilege. They are taxpayers and they should reap the benefit of their taxpayer dollars.”

Kevin Mooney is the Capitol Bureau Reporter with the Pelican Institute for Public Policy. He can be reached at and followed on Twitter.