When the taxpayer pays the tab, should the government be able to measure what it is getting for the money?
That is the question that underlies what on the surface is a critical report about Louisiana’s new voucher program, which allows private school to be paid for with public funds. The program served about 8,800 students last year.
The voucher law pushed by Gov. Bobby Jindal got a disappointing C rating from the Center for Education Reform, a national group pushing school choice.
It’s always advisable, though, to look under the hood of ratings, good or bad. In the CER ratings, Louisiana’s voucher program — which is right up the group’s ideological alley — was faulted for the accountability requirements that go with the “scholarships,” as Jindal calls the vouchers.
Louisiana requires “significant regulatory intrusion on private school autonomy,” which hurt its CER grade. The group criticized the requirement that voucher students take the same assessments as public school students.
The test requirement makes sense, we think, but therein lies the underlying tension in the broad “school choice” movement.
On one hand are those with a — for lack of a better word — more libertarian streak: Public money should follow the child and the judge of whether the school is working is the parent or guardian of the child. The state should butt out.
That’s a subtle difference with the accountability initiative championed by Louisiana. School choice should be made available, as Jindal pushed for vouchers, but the success of the school should be measurable and publicly reported, so parents and guardians have the information to assess their options.
As mandated in the 2012 Jindal-backed law, state officials require the same tests as those given students in public schools. Yet the state Board of Elementary and Secondary Education and the state Department of Education recognized that schools with only a few students should not be tied up with excessive regulatory burdens for that reason.
There is a reasonable scale of how many voucher students a school must enroll before tests are required and publicly reported.
We supported this accountability requirement when it was put in place, but as the CER criticism suggests, it’s not ideologically pure enough for some in the choice movement.
What’s the real-world problem? Vouchers given in large numbers to fly-by-night schools don’t serve the interests of children and they waste the money of taxpayers. BESE and Education Superintendent John White have responded reasonably to the real-world problem.
If you are pro-vouchers, do you want an utterly unregulated system that will produce the kind of scandals — overnight “schools” without textbooks, qualified teachers or even classrooms — that can discredit school choice?
A spokesman for the state Department of Education said at the time that, in 2010, only 30 percent of voucher students scored at grade level on the two tests.
The numbers suggest that concerns about vouchers were well-founded. Let’s not roll back reasonable regulations that are in the interests of students.