Louisiana strikes the right balance on accountability for school vouchers

Ideologues tend to exaggerate political debate, but Louisiana school superintendent John White reminded us Tuesday that rational policy is the key to integrating vouchers into a robust public education system. The accountability that White introduced, and the Board of Elementary and Secondary Education (BESE) adopted, represents a thoughtful balance of testing, regulation and market forces that ultimately will require vouchers to prove their value.

That’s a formula for how private learning options will become mainstream.

Lawmakers have shown themselves to be particularly inept at writing policy framework for vouchers so, in expanding the New Orleans voucher program to the rest of the state, the Louisiana Legislature punted accountability to the bureaucrats. That left White, a former Teach For America administrator and New York City schools executive under chancellor Joel Klein, with a task that requires careful calibration in a volatile environment. (As if to reinforce the rhetorical excess, one BESE board member on Tuesday assured his colleagues they were about to bite into the forbidden fruit of Eden and could be assured that “evil is going to arise.”)

What makes accountability so difficult is that there is still no clear blueprint. Every state with a voucher or tax credit scholarship has a different iteration, and the loudest voices are usually at the extremes – the voucher critics who demand the private schools be held to precisely the same standard as a public school and the voucher advocates who argue that no regulation is necessary because the market will force schools to respond. So the chore is to find the right balance, one with academic and financial oversight that taps into the accountability that follows from a parent who can walk out the door. This is made all the more challenging by the fact that, in most states, the students who receive the scholarship or voucher represent a minority of the enrollment in the private school.

White navigated the academic maze this way: 1) Every voucher student takes the state test; 2) The results of every test are reported on a statewide basis; 3) Any school with at least 40 students taking the test is held accountable; 4) Those schools will be evaluated on a scale similar to that of public schools. If they fail three out of any four years, their students will be given priority to attend other schools. Furthermore, the failing school will not be allowed to take new students and could be dropped from the program.

The rule has been criticized because the accountability portion is projected to capture only about a fourth of the participating schools in the first school year and schools will not be banned after one failing year. But the small number of schools with at least 40 tested students is the very nature of this school landscape. The 5,600 Louisiana students who receive vouchers this fall will not generally be attending schools where every student receives public support. Instead, they will go to private schools with mostly private-paying students, and you can’t reliably measure a school’s fitness based on two or three or a dozen student test scores.

That said, there is nothing sacrosanct about the lines that are drawn in this new Louisiana accountability rule, and they will no doubt be amended and improved over the years. But the rule is a commendable start and one, similar to the approach in Indiana, that makes an important statement about private learning options. They are part of, not in competition with, the public education system, and they need to be properly held to account.

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