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The 2013 Legislative Audit of Louisiana Voucher Schools

December 16, 2013

On December 11, 2013, Louisiana Legislative Auditor (LLA) Daryl Purpera released the 2013 Performance Audit of Louisiana’s voucher program.

The purpose of this audit is to inform legislators of the state of the Louisiana voucher program as the legislators consider the actions they might take regarding the voucher program in the upcoming legislative session.

I sure hope the legislators take Purpera’s report to heart.

In this post, I will touch on a number of critical issues related to the circus that is the Louisiana Student Scholarships for Educational Excellence Program (i.e., the voucher program).

If Louisiana State Superintendent John White “regulated” traditional public schools with as much “rigor” as he does the voucher program, no traditional public school would fear closure; no traditional public school teacher would be concerned about being graded using student test scores, and no traditional public school student would experience high-stakes, standardized test anxiety.

John White has been hired to ensure the unregulated privatizing of public education. It is his unwritten job description. Just watch him in action.

As to the audit: Let me begin with the fact that just over half (51%, or 2,556 students) in the voucher program are very young (grades K-2). The report does not include specific numbers for each of these grades, but I am guessing it is kindergarten-heavy.

I am concerned for these children. What are they gaining from their experiences in the voucher schools? One cannot know. The only formal means of assessing the voucher program, standardized test scores, does not apply until third grade. I am glad that these K-2 children are not subjected to standardized tests. However, in its (arguably intentional) shortsightedness, the Louisiana Department of Education (LDOE) has provided for no formal means of determining the quality of educational experience for these children.

In other words, for over half of the students enrolled in Louisiana’s “excellent” voucher program in 2012-13, no means exists to know whether these children are mastering the age-appropriate learning necessary for advancement to the next grade, let alone being exposed to such learning at all.

In 2012-13, 23 of the 118 schools enrolled only K-2 students.

Zero accountability for these schools.

Other schools serving students including and beyond K-2 could be assessed using data from other students. (“Could be” but not necessarily were. Stay tuned.)

The smallest group enrolled in the voucher program is high school students (grades 9 through 12). Only five percent (261 students statewide) opted for the voucher program and were placed in voucher high schools. The low percentage of high-school students enrolled speaks to both Louisiana high school students’ and Louisiana high schools’ unwillingness to participate in the state’s voucher program.

Thus, most reported test results for the Louisiana voucher program are those connected with the approximately 45% of students enrolled in grades 3 through 8 (and are therefore the results of students’ LEAP or iLEAP tests as opposed to the high school End of Course [EOC] tests).

Only 81% of schools with students in grades 3 through 12 produced the LEAP, iLEAP and EOC scores necessary to determine that overall student proficiency in voucher schools for the 2012-13 school year (for schools in the program for two years, mind you) was 41.8%. According to Board of Elementary and secondary Education (BESE) Bulletin 133, some voucher schools should have had a “type” of school performance score calculated for 2012-13. However, it seems that John White let that one slide. As the audit notes:

LDOE’s accountability system for public schools uses school performance scores to measure student achievement and student success. According to Bulletin 133 Section 1305, starting with academic year 2012-13, all schools participating in the Scholarship Program will receive a Scholarship Cohort Index which will be calculated “substantially similar” to the school performance scores. This index will be used to measure the academic performance of schools participating in the Scholarship Program. However, to receive the index, schools must have 40+ Scholarship students in tested grades (3-12) and/or an average of 10+ Scholarship students per K-12 grade in the school. If after two years in the program a school shows poor academic performance, as evidenced by a Scholarship Cohort Index of below 50 out of 150, the school will not be allowed to enroll new Scholarship students. Currently, a public school receiving a school performance score below 50 would be graded an “F.” [Emphasis added.]

Understand that the “scholarship cohort index” is a seriously dumbed-down version of the school performance score that allows for numerous voucher schools to escape measure. The “escape” doesn’t even matter in 2012-13: White did not calculate such an index for 2012-13. Instead, he just “decided” to “restrict” the number of new students voucher schools with less than 25% proficiency could accept. No dropping of the schools. Just no new students, well, in most cases. It just depended upon White’s judgment:

Since the Scholarship Cohort Index had not yet been calculated, LDOE decided that it would restrict the number of new Scholarship students a school could accept for academic year 2013-14 if the school had participated in the program for at least two years and had a proficiency rating of less than 25% during the 2012-13 academic year. The school was allowed to keep continuing Scholarship students. However, these students were allowed to transfer to another participating school. Of the 118 participating schools in academic year 2012-13, 33 had participated in the Scholarship Program for at least two years and had an overall proficiency rating of 41.8%. According to LDOE, five (15%) of the 33 schools were not allowed to accept new Scholarship students for academic year 2013-14 because their proficiency ratings were below 25%. In addition, LDOE restricted the number of new Scholarship students two (6%) schools were allowed to accept. [Emphasis added.]

Did you catch that? Only 33 of the 118 voucher schools were involved in the 41.8% proficiency measure. The rest were unmeasured. No measure built into “the law” for these 85 schools.

Purpera wants LDOE to establish criteria for voucher school removal:

According to Bulletin 133 Section 1305 (E)(3), if at any time LDOE determines that a school has “demonstrated gross or persistent lack of basic academic competence,” the school may incur penalties including ineligibility to participate in the Scholarship Program or ineligibility to accept new students. However, Bulletin 133 does not define “gross or persistent lack of basic academic competence” nor does it define the criteria by which to determine when a school should be deemed ineligible to participate in the program or to accept new students. Without specific criteria, LDOE cannot ensure it is holding schools accountable for their academic performance and treating schools consistently. …  LDOE should develop internal procedures with more specific criteria for removing a participating school from the program based on academic performance.  [Emphasis added.]

Of course, White wants the carte blanche that Bulletin 133 currently affords him. No accountability except that which “feels right” to him. And of course, it’s for the kids:

Summary of Management’s Response: LDOE disagrees with this recommendation. According to LDOE, in 2012-13, the Department prohibited seven schools from accepting new students due to poor academic performance. In addition, Bulletin 133 gives the Superintendent the discretion necessary to determine whether a participating school has demonstrated gross or persistent lack of basic academic competence and provide the appropriate consequences. The Superintendent and the Department need this flexibility to fulfill their commitments to students. [Emphasis added.]

“Discretion” and “flexibility” = capriciousness and privatization bias.

Purpera wants a procedure in place for voucher school dismissal. White says, “See? I’m doing my job because I choose not to dismiss but restrict.”

What a crock.

Purpera counters White’s refusal by noting that both traditional public schools and charter schools have procedures in place for takeover/nonrenewal:

While LDOE has sanctioned some participating schools by restricting their ability to accept new students in 2013-14, there are no specific criteria in place for completely removing a participating school from the Scholarship Program based on poor academic performance. Specific criteria would help LDOE ensure it is holding schools accountable for their performance and treating schools consistently. Such criteria would not interfere with the Superintendent’s or the Department’s flexibility to fulfill their commitments to students. In addition, LDOE already has this type of criteria in place for public schools and charter schools. Public schools that are academically unacceptable are subject to take over by the Recovery School District. Charter schools are subject to not having their charters renewed if they do not meet specific academic performance standards.  [Emphasis added.]

As it stands, Purpera’s May 2013 report on the Louisiana charter schools shows just how underregulated they are. So for Purpera to use Louisiana charter regulation as justification for Louisiana voucher school regulation only shows how sloppy White’s management of the voucher schools truly is.

And we haven’t even broached the topic of money yet.

Let’s do so now in headline fashion:

Independent auditors found that LDOE overpaid or underpaid 48 (41%) of the 118 participating schools in academic year 2012-13.

Thirty-five (30%) of the 118 schools overcharged tuition for Scholarship students. The amount overcharged to LDOE for tuition payments ranged from a low of $5 per student to a high of $5,566 per student.

Five (4%) of the 118 schools were paid tuition for ineligible Scholarship students whose family’s income exceeded the limits allowed for participation in the program or were paid tuition for students not attending the school.

Ten (8%) of the 118 schools either could not provide or had incorrect residency/enrollment information for Scholarship students. This resulted in seven schools potentially being overpaid and three schools being underpaid tuition for these students.

Three (50%) of the six schools that offered special education services had either excess charges for special education students or could not provide documentation of services provided to special education students.

Independent auditors were unable to perform all procedures related to the use of funding for 115 (97%) of the 118 schools because these schools did not separately account for the Scholarship funds.

The inability to audit schools should have produced sanctions:

According to Bulletin 133 Section 1301, Scholarship funds shall be used for educational purposes as defined in the Minimum Foundation Program (MFP) formula. The MFP formula defines educational purposes as the expenditures related to operational and instructional activities which include instructional programs, administration, operations and maintenance, and facility acquisition and construction services. State law requires participating schools to submit independent financial audits to LDOE, which LDOE then uses to determine if Scholarship funds are used in accordance with Bulletin 133. According to state law, LDOE shall “place any participating school that fails to comply with the audit provisions pursuant to R.S. 17:4022(3) on probation for a period of one year during which such school shall not be permitted to enroll additional scholarship recipients.” [Emphasis added.]

LDOE has noted that it is providing “guidance” to the voucher schools regarding their records keeping requirements for those millions in state-supplied voucher funding. However, Purpera wants more:

LDOE should mandate that participating schools separately account for their Scholarship funds and place schools on probation in accordance with state law when they fail to comply with audit provisions. [Emphasis added.]

In his response, White plays word  games; technically, separate bank accounts are not “in the law”:

Summary of Management’s Response: LDOE partially agrees with this recommendation. According to LDOE, each participating school is legally obligated to maintain compliance with the audit provisions set forth in R.S. 17:4022(3). While the law does not mandate that schools separately account for scholarship funds, in 2013-14 the Department required schools to separately account for these funds either through the use of a separate bank account or through segregated accounting within the schools’ accounting systems. If schools fail to comply, the Department will address the matter within the confines of the law and policy bulletin. See Appendix A for LDOE’s full response. [Emphasis added.]

If the state cannot make sense of the “independent audit” submitted by the voucher schools, then the schools should be held accountable. Isn’t that the reformer word? Isn’t it all about accountability?

There will be no substantive voucher school accountability coming from Mr. Muddy Narrative.

Here’s to the 2014 legislature taking the accountability mantra to heart and limiting the actions of Little Kid White in his Voucher Candy Store.

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