The school year in Louisiana has begun under a changed landscape. Last year saw the expansion of Gov. Bobby Jindal’s sweeping school voucher program, officially called the Louisiana Scholarship Program, statewide. The program gives parents the choice to attend participating private schools for free if their local public school is low performing.
The program was funded with taxpayer money from the Minimum Foundation Fund (MFP). This is the state’s per pupil allocation fund for its public schools. The logic was since that student was leaving a public school, the funds allocated for that student could be used at their new private school. This resulted in almost $30 million dollars in funds diverted from public schools in the last school year into private entities.
In other words, the best way to improve failing schools is to put fewer resources into them.
Now faced with trying to find funds for the estimated $45 million dollar cost for the voucher program, Louisiana must also deal with the reality that voucher students are performing worse on standardized tests than their public school counterparts. In results released also in May, 60 percent of voucher students failed to score at or above grade level in the LEAP testing given to third through eighth graders. The 40 percent proficiency level of voucher students was significantly lower than the state average of 69 percent.
The testing at the private voucher schools are for accountability purposes since they receive taxpayer funds. Seven of the schools performed so badly for the past three years (less than 25% of the voucher students scored at proficient levels in any year), they are no longer allowed to accept new voucher students (current students can remain).
These seven schools are also the most dependent on public funds of all the voucher schools.
The state superintendent told The Times-Picayune that the low 2013 scores for voucher students were due to a large influx of students from poor performing schools, indicating that 61 percent of the students were in their first year at the school.
Of course, this does not explain why voucher students in the previous year were only at 33 percent proficiency.
Perhaps the poor performance of the voucher students has something to do with the curriculum in the schools. In 2008, the same year that the voucher program was approved for New Orleans, the legislature passed the Louisiana Science Education Act. The ironically titled act encourages the teaching of creationism as an actual competing theory to evolution.
Of the approximately 130 voucher schools, 20 purposely use textbooks and guides in their “science” programs that promote Biblical theories. While they will indicate that “evolutionists” believe something different, God’s word is the one they should always trust. So if God says that dinosaurs and people lived on an earth that is only 6,000 years old, that is the correct test answer.
Unfortunately, standardized tests don’t agree.
In December of 2012, the Orleans Parish School Board prohibited the teaching of creationism or intelligent design in public schools. Orleans Parish had 84 percent proficiency on the LEAP tests. Of the seven voucher schools that had less than 25% proficiency, three of them have a biblical based curriculum for their science teachings.
The majority of the voucher schools are religious.
The court ruling did not say the entire voucher program was unconstitutional, nor did it say that public funds could not be used. It simply stated that the funds could not come from the pool of money specifically designated for public schools.
The current budget allows for approximately $40 million for the 2013-14 voucher program school year out of the general fund. A related mini-voucher program called Course Choice, which allows public school students to take courses not offered in their schools online, has found its more than $2 million in funding by eliminating testing for second graders, trimming employee travel and overhead, and additional funds from an oil and gas settlement fund.
Early indications are that they are continuing to throw good money into a bad idea.
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