A group of New Orleans schoolchildren received a visit from “Santa Claus” prior to Christmas. Let’s hope a Grinch doesn’t steal their gift in the upcoming year.
While on a tour of the state to wrap up his second term, Gov. Bobby Jindal played the role of St. Nicholas when he stopped by St. Benedict the Moor School in New Orleans. All of its non-kindergarten students attend it through the state’s voucher program, championed by Jindal. The Catholic school, which without the state funds likely could not operate, charges its exclusively low-income clientele no tuition. Well above the state average for all Louisiana schools, it scored the highest performance rating among Louisiana’s private schools with at least 10 children receiving vouchers.
Without vouchers, St. Benedict’s students, like a number of students attending other schools on vouchers, would attend public schools that perform at far lower levels. Most studies of voucher recipients’ learning growth show they do no worse or make more rapid progress than public school peers.
The voucher program also helps students more generally and taxpayers as well. Almost every study of the competitive effects of voucher programs show that they nudge neighboring public schools to do better. And the average annual state cost of a voucher student in Louisiana falls thousands of dollars below the expense for each public school student.
But in the future looms a Grinch in the form of Gov.-elect John Bel Edwards. In Edwards’ legislative career, he tried to strangle school choice with regulations aimed at severe restriction of voucher programs. He claims that he doesn’t want to terminate vouchers, but ideas he has floated would diminish their use.
For example, Edwards could promote legislation that requires schools with voucher students to use certified teachers as already mandated in public schools. Additionally, he could resurrect his bill, defeated in committee this year, that limits kindergarten recipients only to those scheduled to attend a rated “D” or “F” school, potentially expanding that eligibility standard to all grade levels. That change alone would reduce participation by some 2,000, or over 30 percent, and the change in the certification requirement could take away spots for thousands more recipients.
While voucher funding does not appear as a line item in the budget that Edwards could veto, it does come from discretionary money appropriated to the Department of Education. The Democratic governor could threaten initiatives from the majority Republican Legislature unless it slashes voucher funding.
Teacher unions and local school district officials certainly want Edwards to back such moves and other retreats in education policy because vouchers force more accountability onto teachers, administrators and politicians. Vouchers limit unions’ membership base and thus their power because with more voucher students, fewer public school teachers are needed. Vouchers also reduce the power of district bureaucrats and school board members. These special interests prefer the old government school monopoly that privileges them, instead of assuring that every child gets a decent education.
Throughout Edwards’ political career, he has shown sympathy towards these special interests, and they enthusiastically backed him throughout his campaign. By following their dictates, Edwards would block the schoolhouse door, allowing ideology and cronyism to divert children to lesser educational opportunities and life prospects while also removing an incentive for public schools to perform better. On this issue, Edwards must choose to be a Santa, not a Grinch.
Jeff Sadow is an associate professor of political of political science at Louisiana State University Shreveport, where he teaches Louisiana Government. He is author of a blog about Louisiana politics (http://www.between-lines.com) and, when the Louisiana Legislature is in session, another about legislation in it (http://www.laleglog.com). Follow him on Twitter, @jsadowadvocate. Write to him, at firstname.lastname@example.org. His views do not necessarily express those of his employer.