John White Is Subsidizing Voucher Schools– and Being Called Out by BESE
On September 01, 2014, the Baton Rouge Advocate published an article entitled, “Cristo Rey Considers Starting School in Baton Rouge.”
Cristo Rey is a national chain of Catholic high schools that cater to inner-city students, even arranging for students to find employment as a means of assisting with school tuition.
The writer of this September 2014 article, Charles Lussier, makes it sound like Cristo Rey Baton Rouge is not a done deal– even as he writes that if the school were to open, those directing the effort already know it would be in fall 2016 and that the school would launch with “about 125 ninth-graders.”
At the time of Lussier’s article, Baton Rouge nonprofit, New Schools for Baton Rouge, was already involved in trying to establish Cristo Rey Baton Rouge:
Cristo Rey caught the attention of New Schools for Baton Rouge, a 2-year-old group best known for recruiting and supporting a handful of charter schools that recently opened in Baton Rouge. …
Chris Meyer, president and CEO of New Schools for Baton Rouge, said his group supports a wide variety of schools. The organization’s focus is on expanding options for students in low-performing Baton Rouge public schools.
So, it seems that NSBR is prepared to financially assist Cristo Rey with establishing its Baton Rouge campus. Hold that thought.
Lussier reports that Cristo Rey Baton Rouge also has the attention of the Louisiana Department of Education (LDOE) as a school that might accept voucher students. In fact, LDOE is so excited about Cristo Rey that Lussier actually published LDOE’s helping Cristo Rey to “establish” itself for two years prior to taking students so that it might *technically* be in existence for two years prior to 2016, thereby fulfilling the law intended to prevent a school for opening expressly for the purpose of taking voucher students– and skirting the legal limit of private school Cristo Rey as having up to 20 percent of its students funded by public money via vouchers:
Cristo Rey normally sets up shop in bigger cities. Although smaller, Baton Rouge has one big advantage: Louisiana’s publicly funded private school voucher program. Currently, children using vouchers in Baton Rouge means as much as $8,900 apiece in taxpayer money.
“Without the voucher program, we wouldn’t be here today,” said Brian Melton, director of school growth for Cristo Rey.
The proposed Baton Rouge high school is already cleared for opening, an important step when it comes to vouchers.
Cristo Rey obtained approval in June as a nonpublic school from the Louisiana Board of Elementary and Secondary Education (BESE). BESE approved the school, even though it’s still just a proposal and its future is uncertain. Kevin Calbert, a spokesman for BESE, explained that its rules do not restrict BESE to approving only schools already in operation and that the board has approved prospective nonpublic schools in the past.
Getting BESE approval in advance as Cristo Rey is doing, however, avoids that two-year penalty box. When its Baton Rouge school arrives at its planned opening in fall 2016, those two years will have passed. Consequently, it will be free to enroll voucher students without the 20 percent restriction.
Note that as Lussier’s article continues, Cristo Rey acknowledges that even $8,900 per student is not enough, and that is why they have student employment to help make up the difference for the projected $13,000 per student.
It seems that BESE was willing to approve a school two years prior to its even existing so that the school might accept as many voucher students as possible– say, the entire projected 125 students that Cristo Rey planed to enroll in 2016 according to Lussier’s 2014 article.
Now, here is where it gets interesting.
In October 2014– one month following Lussier’s Advocate article– LDOE issued two contracts to NSBR for the purposes of setting up Cristo Rey and another school (name blocked out) to cater to the voucher program. One contract was for $500,000 so that NSBR might “establish a School Tuition Organization as part of the Tuition Donation Rebate Program and award student scholarships to eligible students from Louisiana low-income families to attend the eligible nonpublic school of their choice.”
According to the contract terms, NSBR was allowed to appoint itself as this School Tuition Org and keep the $500,000 for itself– which it did. This first contract was for the period October 2014 to June 2016.
That same month, in October 2014, LDOE awarded NSBR a second contract worth $1,250,000 and that was to span the same time period (Oct 2014 to June 2016) for the express purpose of funneling the $1.25 million through NSBR and directing it to Cristo Rey Baton Rouge and another school (name partially blocked out; what is visible is “Educational E”) so that each of these schools might be prepared to accept 125 voucher students for the 2016-17 school year.
Thus, Louisiana state superintendent John White funneled state money through NSBR– an organization that happens to have Lane Grigsy on its board– the same Lane Grigsby who used his Empower Louisiana PAC to funnel over $2 million combined from Walton, Arnold, Bloomberg, and Broad into Louisiana’s 2016 BESE election.
It gets even more interesting.
On March 04, 2016, White tried to present to BESE this supposed annual report on Louisiana vouchers. In short, White attempts to make the voucher program appear successful via generous brush strokes of *improvement* despite growing evidence to the contrary (see here for Advocate article on lower test scores for voucher students and here for an Ed Research Alliance (ERA) report that shows voucher students in grades 3 through 6 have obvious test score drops after leaving their public schools and heading to voucher schools).
But on top of his sad effort to falsify voucher student success, White falsely declared that vouchers cost less. So, parents, White wants you to know that you, too, could remove your children from public school, enroll them in private school, and expect their test scores to drop– but bounce up a bit in a second year– not quite to what they were– all supposedly for less money.
White’s questionable annual report states that using vouchers costs taxpayers on average $5,545 for the “Louisiana Scholarship Program” (i.e., taxpayer money) and $3,510 for the “Tuition Donation Rebate Program” (i.e., also taxpayer money).
And now, it gets really interesting.
White’s voucher report is a lie, and he was publicly called out for it by BESE. As Les Landon of the Louisiana Federation of Teachers (LFT) reports in a March 06, 2016, email update to LFT members:
In a stunning rebuke to State Superintendent of Education John White, the board he oversees demanded that he strike a controversial voucher report from its agenda and rewrite it to more accurately depict the voucher program.
The annual report on the status of non-public schools that receive state aid contained glaring errors that public school supporters say conceals deficiencies in the voucher scheme championed by ex-Governor Bobby Jindal.
Louisiana School Boards Association Executive Director Scott Richard pointed out the report’s biggest contradiction, a claim that voucher schools are saving the state money because tuition costs at voucher schools can be lower than the per-pupil amount sent to public schools through the Minimum Foundation Program.
Richard presented a report from the Legislative Fiscal Office noting that reductions to the voucher scheme would actually save the state money.
Trimming vouchers would “increase MFP costs, but at a lower per-pupil cost than what is currently being paid to voucher schools,” the report says. “The state will pay $8.3 million more to the voucher schools than it would have paid through the MFP in the current year.”
White’s voucher report also concluded that voucher students perform at increasing academic levels, even though a series of recent studies show that voucher students actually lag far behind their public school counterparts.
When the Board of Elementary and Secondary Education was asked to receive White’s report, members rebelled.
At-large Member Doris Voitier said that if receiving the report means BESE endorses it, it would have to be revised to reflect the Legislative Fiscal Office’s comments.
White responded that the report is the Department of Education’s and not BESE’s. “This does not have to go to BESE for approval,” he said, adding that there “would be no consequences” for receiving an inaccurate report.
Voitier would have none of it. “Whether or not we accept the report, it is misleading,” she said, and urged White to rewrite the document.
When White balked, District 5 Member Gary Jones moved that the item be stricken from the agenda, and Voitier amended the motion to require a rewrite.
The amended motion was approved by all 11 members without opposition.
It is refreshing to read that BESE is calling White on his lies. Landon states that White “oversees” BESE, but BESE is actually White’s boss, and he is supposed to answer to that 11-member board.
He is just used to running the BESE show. Until now.
But there is another component to this, and that involves White’s funneling state money to Cristo Rey and another private school to subsidize the schools under the condition that the schools will take future voucher students.
In September 2014, Cristo Rey stated it planned to open with 125 ninth-grade students, and John White funneled $1.25 million to Cristo Rey and another school through NSBR under the condition that each provide 125 seats for 2016-17 voucher students.
That’s $5,000 per seat, and we aren’t talking about the money these schools would receive per student when the kids finally arrive– if they do at all. And that is on top of the half million paid to NSBR for eight months of “oversight.”
LDOE needs to stop bleeding taxpayer money on contracts.
The combined $1.75 million to NSBR is a major hidden cost for White’s voucher push, one that came to my attention through a public records request filed by retired Louisiana teacher and political activist, Lee Barrios.
White apparently used part of $4 million in funding allotted from the state’s general fund “to the District Support Program to improve program quality and provide support for choice programs” (see page 230, lines 30-32 of this document.)
As of March 05, 2016, it seems that of the $1.25 million LDOE contracted with NSBR for setting up Cristo Rey and the other school for voucher seats, only $341,877 has been spent, leaving $1,128,623 not yet spent.
That remaining $1,128,623 ought to be frozen– or cut from LDOE’s budget. Cameron Henry’s HB 122– which had $44 million being cut from LDOE’s funding (but not MFP or district functioning)– has been reduced by the Senate to $1.4 million and rejected by the House on March 04. 2016. House and Senate will now conference over the bill. (For updates on HB 122, click here.)
The bottom line is that White’s LDOE needs to be audited and all of the funneled money brought into the public light.