One of former Gov. Bobby Jindal’s signature education laws is actually hurting student achievement, according to a national report that is sparking controversy.
Louisiana students who get state-financed vouchers to attend private schools suffer more academically than if they had remained in a troubled public school, says a review done for the National Bureau of Economic Research in Cambridge, Massachusetts.
The one-year study says achievement drops showed up in math, reading, science and social studies for students enrolled in what is officially called the Louisiana Scholarship Program.
“Our results show that LSP vouchers reduce academic achievement,” the review says.
The NREB is a 96-year-old private, nonpartisan group that does research for academics, public policymakers and business. Twenty-five Nobel prizewinners have worked as researchers for the organization.
Longtime critics of vouchers, including leaders of traditional public school groups that opposed the expansion of vouchers in 2012, seized on the report.
Debbie Meaux, president of the Louisiana Association of Educators, said Thursday the findings confirm what her group has long suspected, and that voucher students often go without the level of curriculum and teachers common in other schools.
“We are seeing a difference in the quality of education provided to those kids,” Meaux said.
But state Superintendent of Education John White, a longtime backer of vouchers, said in a paper published last month that the NREB report is limited to just the first school year that vouchers were expanded statewide — 2012-13 — and that students have shown steady gains since then.
White, in a paper done for the Thomas Fordham Institute, wrote that the authors of the report were offered two additional years of data on how voucher students fared “but turned them down because of urgency to meet their own deadlines for publishing.”
Vouchers are state aid that allow low-income students to attend private and parochial schools rather than troubled public schools.
The state has more than 7,100 voucher students, mostly minorities, and 54 percent of recipients attend schools in East Baton Rouge and Orleans parishes.
The average family income for enrollees during the year studied was $17,389.
The average voucher totals $5,311 compared with $8,605 for students in the public school district previously used.
The state tab is $42 million this year.
Four years ago, Jindal made expanding vouchers statewide a key part of his push to overhaul the state’s long-troubled public school system.
However, Gov. John Bel Edwards, then a state House member, opposed the expansion measure and has called for changes as governor. That means vouchers likely will be debated during the 2016 regular legislative session.
The former governor and other backers portrayed the aid as an escape hatch for students trapped in failing public schools. However, the report said voucher students face a 50 percent greater chance of failing scores in math.
“Voucher effects for reading, science and social studies are also negative and large,” according to the 41-page study.
“The negative impacts of vouchers are consistent across income groups, geographic areas, and private school characteristics, and are larger for younger children,” it says.
Students would have fared better by staying in an even low-performing public school, Christopher R. Walters, one of the authors of the review, said in an emailed response to questions.
Walters is an assistant professor of economics at the University of California at Berkeley.
The others who did the report are on the economics faculties at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and Duke University.
Part of the problem, according to the review, is that many of the private voucher schools — usually affiliated with Roman Catholic churches — experienced sharp enrollment declines before accepting voucher students.
“This fact suggests that the LSP may attract a negatively-selected set of private schools struggling to maintain enrollment,” it says.
White, in his written comments on the report, said students have shown solid gains since the school year cited in the report.
Students achieving grade level results in math and reading rose to 41 percent in 2013 and 47 percent in 2015.
“Were Louisiana’s private school voucher program considered a school system for purposes of analysis, it would have ranked ninth out of 71 systems across the state for annual performance improvement,” he wrote. “All told, the results are not yet strong but they are improving at a steady pace.”
The review is not the first time test scores among voucher students have triggered controversy.
In 2013, Legislative Auditor Daryl Purpera issued a report that said the state Department of Education was short on criteria to make sure schools are academically prepared to handle voucher students.
Steve Monaghan, president of the Louisiana Federation of Teachers, said the use of vouchers statewide was pushed by Jindal without studying how voucher students fared in the classroom when they were limited to New Orleans during the four previous years. “With an ideological perspective, the argument or research-based findings weren’t necessary,” Monaghan said.
Ann Duplessis, president of the pro-voucher Louisiana Federation for Children, said the report drew too many conclusions from a one-year study.
“If you are going to really understand if something is working, you have to look at a trend,” Duplessis said.
“And this gives no trend,” she said. “It gives one snapshot. And that was not a fair depiction of the viability and success that the program has had.”
Douglas N. Harris, professor of economics at Tulane University and director of the Education Research Alliance for New Orleans, complimented the NREB study and said his group tentatively plans to release four studies on vouchers on Feb. 22.
Follow Will Sentell on Twitter, @WillSentell. For more coverage of Louisiana government and politics, follow our Politics blog at http://blogs.theadvocate.com/politicsblog/.