St. Charles Herald-Guide

School vouchers are only the beginning

Special to the Herald-Guide - September 21, 2012

By John Maginnis
Of Louisiana’s 700,000 public school students back in class, 7,000, 1 percent, are attending private or church schools on state-funded vouchers. The proportion suggests that for all the commotion, from the Legislature to the courts, Gov. Bobby Jindal’s scholarship program will do neither much good nor much harm to the great mass of schoolchildren.

True, with applications exceeding available slots this year, the program is set to grow, if gradually. But bigger, faster moves are coming—critics call them moves on public dollars--which will dwarf the effect of vouchers.

The 45,000 students in charter schools (publicly funded but independently operated) number six times those on vouchers, with a potentially big spurt in growth next year. The same law that expanded vouchers caused the Department of Education to receive 26 new charter school applications, up from five last year. The change in law allows groups in school districts rated D or F, nearly 40 percent statewide, to apply directly to the state Board of Elementary and Secondary Education, instead of first having to ask and usually get rejected by their local school boards, which stand to lose state and local education dollars with each new charter school approval.

Outside of New Orleans, charter schools have shown mixed results in 14 other parishes, but, overall, they have done no worse than have school boards in failing districts.

Fortunately, BESE and the Department of Education have been more rigorous in judging charter school applications than those for schools seeking voucher students. They tend to reject more new charter applications than they approve, often favoring those using out-of-state operators with track records and financial stability over well-meaning local organizations, which lack experience and resources. They need to stay that course on charter schools and get with it on vouchers.

Many legislators did not know all that was in the 47-page bill at the heart of the governor’s agenda.. That goes most of all for the new Course Choice program, which, starting next school year, will pay for students to take classes that they are not able or do not want to take at the public schools they attend. With this concept, Louisiana is well ahead of the rest of the country, which should give taxpayers pause. If administered properly, the course program could do more good than vouchers, giving students greater choice and access to learning, without having to change schools. But if done the way things often have been here, it could be the greatest boondoggle and most efficient raid yet on public education dollars.

Under the plan, public school students will be able to take single courses either in person or online from approved providers, even if the same courses are offered in their schools. The 380,000 students in schools rated C, D or F will have their tuition, up to $1,250 per course, paid with public education dollars. Students in A and B schools can take the outside courses for credit, but would have to pay the tuition themselves.

This takes education choice down to the basic unit. A student at a small rural school could take advanced placement or language courses not offered there. Another student, otherwise satisfied with his or her school, could escape an inept or dreaded math teacher by taking the same course on-line.

The law has a few obvious flaws, such as allowing providers to keep 50 percent of tuition for students who sign up but don’t complete, or even start, courses.

Legislators may not have noticed what they were doing, but the online education industry, along with non-profits, public institutions, even individuals, were ready the first day applications were accepted, with 24 submitted in the first 24 hours. The law calls for extensive reviews by the education department, independent panels of experts and BESE. That will be critical, as some submissions appear thin if not opportunistic. One offers "urban farming" and "hair care techniques," while two are submitted by "educational entrepreneurs," who might or might not have much to offer.

Some applicants are established educational concerns, like Princeton Review and Sylvan Learning. Others are non-traditional, but innovative, like Louisiana Associated Builders and Contractors’ bid to give higher schoolers hands-on training in carpentry, welding and pipefitting that could land them jobs upon graduation.

Course Choice holds great promise but also pitfalls for a state that badly needs to get something, or a lot of things, right in education.