John White Begs Private Schools to Take More Voucher Students– and Offers More State Money to Help Them Do So
Daytime television has nothing on the pathetic saga of non-success that is the Louisiana voucher program (reformerspeak: “Opportunity Scholarship Program”).
Vouchers were piloted in New Orleans in 2008 and offered to the public beginning the 2012-13 school year. However, the Senate Governmental Affairs Committee asked Louisiana State Superintendent John White about “due diligence” regarding his awarding voucher seats to schools without having conducted site visits. The now-infamous May 2012 “muddying the narrative” emails between White and Jindal administration officials indicate that White concocted a shady after-the-fact “due diligence” in an effort to cover his behind.
White allowed schools like New Living Word in Ruston to participate in the 2012-13 voucher program despite publicized concerns over adequate facilities, only dismissing the school from the voucher program after the state had overpaid it.
Then there is the issue of using money earmarked for public schools, Minimum Foundation Program (MFP) funding, as a means for paying non-public schools to educate voucher students (and to surreptitiously choke public schools via less funding in the process). In typical White fashion, in an effort to dodge “directly” funding vouchers using MFP, in March 2013, he tried to convince state school boards to launder MFP money by first accepting it and then turning it over to voucher schools. The school boards said nothing doing, and in May 2013, the Louisiana Supreme Court ruled that MFP money could not be used to fund Louisiana’s voucher program.
For 2013-14, White and Jindal had to scrape together a few million to fund 8,000 vouchers via a line item in the Louisiana state budget.
Only 8,000 seats, eh? Well. It’s not like the voucher program in Louisiana ever left the ground, demand-wise. In June 2012, Reuters reported that 380,000 Louisiana students would be eligible for vouchers but that only 5,000 seats were currently available. No worries, Reuter reports, because “state officials expected that [the number of available seats] to ramp up quickly.”
Not only did the number of seats not “ramp up”; the general public’s interest in utilizing Louisiana’s “Opportunity Scholarships” never did, either. By fall 2014, less than 14,000 students applied for vouchers, and roughly 9,100 seats were filled– sort of. It turns out that only 7,400 of that 9,100 actually used their vouchers.
This left the state with over $3.7 million in voucher funding unused as of November 2014. Given the June 2014 Jindal-White breakup over Common Core and PARCC, it comes as no surprise that Jindal says he will use the unspent voucher money to patch up his budget.
However, White’s Louisiana Department of Education (LDOE) says that vouchers are growing in popularity. And they (sadly) cite the increase in 700 “actually accepted seats” from 2013-14 to 2014-15 as proof.
A whole 700, you say?
Part of the issue in the discrepancy between the (few) initial number of voucher applicants and those (fewer) actually following through with using offered vouchers is that some voucher applicants might have been enticed to sign up. I know this firsthand. Twice I received a mailer from the Alliance for School Choice in Washington, DC, on behalf of Louisiana’s “Opportunity Scholarship” Program. The mailer included the enticement that if I would just visit the LDOE site I could be entered into a drawing for a $500 back-to-school shopping spree.
Sounds like an Astroturfy effort to make interest in the Louisiana voucher program look greater than it is.
Then there is the issue of not having enough non-LDOE-controlled schools to “choose” to participate in the first place. You see, the private schools have “choice” in this matter, as well.
Oh, sure, many more schools were once in, but many of those– many that happened to be “voucher dependent,” or (who saw this coming, right?) schools whose existence depended on that state voucher check– were not allowed to continue into 2013-14 because they had “failed.” Big surprise, given White’s fake “due diligence” in voucher school approval.
White does not spare his publicly-expressed indignation:
Voucher schools have three years to show academic improvement, via the LEAP test, for their voucher students. If they don’t, the state can mandate that they may not accept more. That’s what tripped up the seven schools now forbidden to accept new vouchers.
“After a period of time, we cannot tolerate failure,” Louisiana Education Superintendent John White said.
And fail White’s beloved voucher schools did. In spring 2013, only 40 percent of third though eighth grade voucher students scored at or above average on the LEAP test compared to the state average of 69 percent. By spring 2014, the percentage “rose” to 45 for voucher students and remained at 69 for the state average.
Sad. So, so sad.
But like the gimp-legged voucher trooper that he is, White continues in his race to find the means to Make Louisiana Vouchers Work.
On August 8, 2014, White offered this Request for Proposal (RFP) to current voucher schools to vie for public money in an effort to “expand their capacity” to accept more voucher students.
Yep. White wants the voucher schools (the ones he can still “tolerate” despite overall sorry LEAP scores in 2013 and 2014) to apply for state assistance so that they might accept more of the already-embarrassingly-low numbers of students “choosing” his vouchers.
Here is an excerpt from White’s RFP spiel:
Despite the hard work of participating schools, community stakeholders, and the Department, the tremendous need and demand from families for these programs still significantly overshadows the available options. More than 150,000 Louisiana students attended a school with a D or F letter grade during the 2013-14 school year. For the 2014-15 school year, family demand for the Louisiana Scholarship Program (approximately 13,000 applications) vastly exceeded the number of available awards (approximately 8,800). In addition, the Tuition Donation Rebate program remains at the cusp of preparing for a significant expansion for the 2015-16 school year.
Louisiana needs to expand the number of available nonpublic school choice opportunities to meet growing student demand.
Meeting this demand requires high-quality nonpublic schools to increase their capacity to serve more students; requires community stakeholders to actively collaborate with schools to foster new nonpublic school opportunities; and requires the Department to provide the financial resources necessary to increase the success of these initiatives.
The big picture of 13,000 out of over 150,000: Less of a “demand” and more of an “eh.”
Then there is the comedy that is the location of the largest voucher school: Resurrection of Our Lord School (531 voucher students) is located in the midst of the New Orleans Charter Miracle, which remains a heavily-D and F district nine years post-Katrina, and even given the 2012-13 inflated grading that artificially boosted numerous “D” schools to “C” schools.
White “needs” more voucher seats to help save him from his own state-run “miracle.”
In White’s RFP, he identifies D and F schools as “failing”; however, the original definition of a “failing” school for Louisiana voucher purposes includes “C” schools. (This July 2014 Advocate article also identifies voucher schools as C, D, or F.)
Why, most of (grade-inflated) New Orleans Recovery School District (RSD) is C, D, and F….
Sad. So sad. But funny.
What is also sad-funny about the above RFP is that it advertised a deadline of September 3, 2014. However, a second RFP dated October 31, 2014, with a deadline of November 17, 2014, was issued for the same purpose: to “expand capacity in current scholarship schools.”
Apparently those current voucher schools were not tripping over one another to scoop up additional voucher students, so JW thought he would offer one last “last chance.”
As it stands, only three entities took White up on his offer (and passed whatever muster was behind this) based upon these$50k+ contracts up for BESE (state board) approval on January 13, 2015. All three are Archdiocese (New Orleans, for $163,525; Baton Rouge, for $75,078, and Shreveport, for $110,988).
In this case, White is asking BESE to approve approximately $350,000 of public money to assist private, parochial schools in collecting more public voucher money via more voucher students.
Surely there is a constitutionality issue here. But there are also drippings of pathos: John White is so desperate to make this largely unwanted Louisiana voucher program work that he is trying to give public money away to current private schools accepting vouchers– and all that he can manage after a repeated RFP is $350k to three archdiocese.
If the Louisiana public wanted a voucher program, many thousands of applicants would have shown up by now. Truly, there is another side to this sadness: It seems that established private schools for the most part are “choosing” to not allow public school students, with their public school money and the state-connected, White-puppeted strings that come along, to enter their halls. All White can do is try to entice them with his RFPs.
He cannot flunk them via school performance score manipulations; he cannot hand them over to an endless turnstile of charter operators, and he cannot grade their teachers based upon COMPASS-crunched numbers.
He can only beg.