A Call to Action: Amend the School Choice Bill

Dear Legislator:

Over the next two weeks, you will be asked to vote for the Choice Bill (HB 976 and SB 597), which will make over 350,000 public school students eligible for vouchers. Done well, it can change lives, giving students trapped in failing schools better educational opportunities and improving education statewide. Done poorly, it will waste taxpayer money and financially strain local school districts.

So, let’s pass a good bill – one that will use our tax dollars to provide a better education for public school students. As it currently stands, the bill has two key flaws that you can easily fix.

First, the current bill fails to protect against fraud or mismanagement of tax dollars. 

Our tax dollars – including local property and sales taxes approved for local schools – follow a student who receives a voucher to a private (or parochial) school.

Private schools may spend this money as they please. Few, if any, state laws or regulations apply. Elsewhere in government, recipients of public money are subject to rules to prevent public funds from being misspent.

This bill lacks these safeguards. A school receiving these monies could hire family and friends and pay them excessive salaries, use the school’s credit card for lavish meals and buy luxury cars for board members and employees. BESE spent years shutting down poorly managed charters and imposing rules to prevent the very behavior this bill permits.

These expenditures would be legal with voucher money – our tax dollars. There is no requirement that the money go to teachers, students and the classroom. There is no provision to establish any rules or regulations. To the contrary, the bill expressly prohibits “any additional regulation of participating schools.”

While the bill empowers the legislative auditor to “return to the state any funds that were expended in a manner inconsistent with state law or program regulations,” there are few state laws or regulations that apply.1

The legislation needs to allow BESE to establish reasonable rules and regulations as a condition of taking taxpayer money.

Second, there are no performance requirements.

The rationale for expanding choice is to spend our tax dollars more wisely to improve education in Louisiana.

Parents spend their hard-earned money to send their child to a private school for any number of reasons: academic rigor; it’s close to home; it’s where they went; they prefer a religious education. But when it is taxpayer money paying their child’s tuition at the private school – just as with traditional and charter schools – taxpayers need to know our dollars are being used to provide the student with a good education.

Yet, the bill has no performance requirements for participating schools.

Voucher students are required to take state tests, and those results are reported, but a participating school can fail to educate its voucher students, year after year, and still keep taking taxpayer money. There are no consequences. The bill requires a private school to be approved by BESE on the front end, but BESE’s approval process is perfunctory and not a proxy for quality.2

When we know a private school is not educating its current voucher students, we should not allow them to continue taking new ones.

As is the case with charter schools, make participating schools meet performance standards for their voucher students if they are going to continue to take public money.

The legislation must permit BESE to establish performance standards once schools have been in the program at least three years.

The Choice Bill allows any private school that has been in operation two or more years to be comprised of 100% voucher students. We will have schools that are 100% voucher.3  With private schools, we rely on tuition-paying parents to demand results for their money.  With voucher schools, paid for with our tax dollars, shouldn’t taxpayers demand the same?

The governor has put forth a bold agenda that can improve education in Louisiana. These shortcomings in the Choice Bill could be resolved with a simple amendment [section 4021(3)] adding the words: “Beginning in 2013, meets and maintains standards which are to be established by the state board,” allowing BESE to implement policy for the voucher program. Or, you may prefer to amend the bill with more prescriptive language.

Either way, let’s get the details right.

Leslie Jacobs
Educate Now! 

1   In January 2001, at the request of BESE, the legislative auditor examined St. Landry Charter School. Among the many findings, the school was paying a related party $23,000/month rent on a building that should have rented for $8000/month. As the auditor noted, it is a “cause for concern” but “there are no state laws…or regulations…that prohibit the school from paying such a large lease payment.”   

2   The bill allows any private school approved, provisionally approved, or probationally approved by BESE to participate in the voucher program. BESE’s approval process does not evaluate the experience of the team operating the school or the school’s academic performance. It does not include any qualitative analysis. The application only asks for the most basic documentation on the school. 

3  At least a third of the schools in the New Orleans voucher pilot now have more than 50% of their student population on vouchers. The highest percentage is 78% voucher students. The largest number of voucher students in a school is 270. And the program is not yet fully phased in.