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Vouchers Coming to Louisiana?

You wouldn’t think so by the number of topics I blog about, but most of the time, if it’s not related to Ruthie Leming, I don’t pay much attention to it these days. I’m up to my ears in book-writing. And I rarely see the local news, because I’m, well, writing. So it was a surprise to me yesterday to run into a couple of teacher friends  yesterday, and hear them talk about the latest in public school reform at the Louisiana legislature.

Gov. Bobby Jindal has been pushing a school reform package that would introduce vouchers, so lower-income kids from schools judged to be failing or near-failing (grades of “D” or “F” from the state — a number that includes 44 percent of all Louisiana public schools), as well as those from mediocre schools (“C”),  can use state money to go to a private or parochial school. The GOP-controlled Louisiana House passed the bill last night.  From the BR Advocate:

The House adopted an amendment that would require state education officials to devise an accountability system for students who attend private and parochial schools with state aid.

Critics said the addition failed to go far enough, and that specific rules and consequences needed to be spelled out if the students fail to show gains.

Under the bill, subsidized students would take the same standardized tests as public school students, with some differences.

For instance, fourth and eighth-graders in public schools have to pass LEAP, which measures math and English skills, to move to the fifth and ninth grade. Voucher students would not face any such rule.

In addition, private schools that accept the students would not face annual letter grades from the state, which public schools do.

An amendment that would have generally aligned testing rules for subsidized students with those in public schools, including high-stakes tests and letter grades for schools, was rejected by the House 34-61.

The Times-Picayune has more detail on the reforms, which include a radical curtailment of teacher tenure.  The Republican-run state Senate takes up the bill next.

Yesterday my teacher friends were really upset by all this. They thought the tenure reform was fair and necessary to get rid of deadheads, but the rest of it struck them as deeply unjust. In particular, they were ticked off that private and parochial schools won’t face the same kind of letter-grade evaluation as the public schools, nor would voucher students be held to the same state testing standard as public school students. To be clear, I have not followed this debate and do not have an informed opinion, but these objections seem completely fair to me. Why stack the deck against public schools like this? I’m not opposed in theory to vouchers, but if you’re going to have them, then they ought to be applied fairly, with the same standard to every school.

Here’s another problem with this: private and parochial schools can kick out kids who misbehave, or who are failing. Public schools don’t have that option — and that affects the student testing, and the grades from the state. How can that be fair?

The thing that upsets my teacher friends the most is how their job security would be tied to teacher performance, as measured by student testing. I have long complained in my blogs about the unfairness of tying teacher accountability to student test scores. Yes, there are bad teachers; I suffered through several of them growing up here, and they were protected by tenure. But student test scores are an unreliable indicator of teacher quality. I’ve said here time and time again that my late sister, who won several awards for teaching, struggled greatly to teach kids who came from poor families that gave their kids little or no support in their studies — not even a stable home life. That my parish has one of the best public school systems in the state, despite having high rates of poverty and family dysfunction, is an incredible achievement. But teachers are having to carry a disproportionate amount of the weight with many students. One of my friends said yesterday, “I wish these legislators could see the number of homework folders we send home that get returned unopened.” Her point is that for many of these kids, there’s nobody at home to help them, or even checking to see that they do their homework. If these kids score low on state testing, how is that the fault of their teacher? Yet their teacher could lose her job, and the school could lose a number of students (and therefore funding) based on these scores. How is that fair?

Like I said, I haven’t been following this debate closely enough to have an informed opinion. As a general matter, I support school reform, but some of the details here strike me as objectionable. I can’t do any research on it this morning because I’m busy working on a story for the magazine. I have a pretty well informed readership, though, so I want to throw open the issue here for discussion. You can’t blame the governor for wanting to fix Louisiana’s public schools. A system in which nearly half the schools tested receive Ds and Fs is not a system that’s working. On the other hand, this could be a problem in which if the only tool you have is a hammer, all problems look like nails. That is, the legislature has no power to punish families that are failing to do their part in educating their children, but it can punish teachers. Therefore, it’s going to punish teachers for what is in many cases the fault of failing families. I have a problem with this. As my sister said to me one time, “I’m a teacher, but I’m also expected to be a social worker.”

One more thing: how do private and parochial school parents feel about this? Do they welcome the prospect of kids from failing public schools coming to their schools? Are they worried that these kids are going to bring down the level of instruction at their schools? I have a friend who went to a Christian school, who said she didn’t realize until years later that she received a substandard education there; the point of the school, she concluded, was to keep Christian kids out of the godless public schools, not to educate them well. If low-income Louisiana public school students take their voucher money and go to schools like hers, which aren’t going to be held accountable to the same evaluation system that public schools are, how will parents, as well as taxpayers, know that their money is being well-spent?

Thoughts? Again, let me stress: I’m not taking sides in this particular debate, at least not yet. I’ve been inexcusably ignorant of it, and am trying to get up to speed. Help me out here.

UPDATE: More random thoughts.

1) I bet the kind of lower-income parents who would take advantage of the vouchers to send their kids to private or parochial schools are the kinds of parents who take more than a passing interest in their kids’ education. That’s just a guess, but I doubt it will lead to an exodus from public schools, because most people, in my estimation, really don’t care enough to go through the hassle of dealing with private and parochial schooling.

2) Even if the private or parochial school the parent chooses is no better academically, it’s not hard to see how being in a more disciplined environment, especially one with religious values informing the school’s culture, could be a huge step up for some kids over what they have to live with now.

UPDATE.2: From the combox thread:

And let me say, as a professor in Baton Rouge, that whatever they are doing for public education in this state isn’t working. I hardly see how vouchers could make it much worse than it is. My students who come from the local Catholic schools are much better prepared than those who come from the local public schools. They aren’t necessarily smarter in the sense of native ability, but what abilities they have are better trained.
The school system here is deeply segregated by class and race. Middle class kids, both white and black, all go to the private schools. The poor, mostly black, kids go to the public schools. If there is a chance that even 10% of those kids can get a better education, then I say it is worth the risk. We waste a lot of human capital — there are some very bright kids who are completely intellectually neglected.

about the author

Rod Dreher is a senior editor at The American Conservative. He has written and edited for the New York Post, The Dallas Morning News, National Review, the South Florida Sun-Sentinel, the Washington Times, and the Baton Rouge Advocate. Rod’s commentary has been published in The Wall Street Journal, Commentary, the Weekly Standard, Beliefnet, and Real Simple, among other publications, and he has appeared on NPR, ABC News, CNN, Fox News, MSNBC, and the BBC. He lives in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, with his wife Julie and their three children. He has also written four books, The Little Way of Ruthie Leming, Crunchy Cons, How Dante Can Save Your Life, and The Benedict Option.

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