About the Louisiana Voucher Program, Where Failure Really Is an Option
On May 19, 2016, Louisiana citizen James Finney submitted a public records request for data concerning student voucher applications submitted by the initial deadline of February 27, 2016, for the 2016-17 school year.
Louisiana’s voucher program has a poor reputation. In January 2016, the Brookings Institute published a piece entitled, “When Winners Are Losers: Private School Vouchers in Louisiana.” In February 2016, US News and World Report published an article entitled, “Evidence Mounts Against Louisiana Voucher Program.” In March 2016, Louisiana state superintendent John White was called out by state board members for promoting a report that said vouchers saved money in the face of testimony before the board that they actually cost more.
The point of the voucher program is that it is supposed to provide a means to exit “failing” public schools. But the voucher schools themselves seem to be playing catch-up to the supposedly “failing” feeder schools. In December 2015, Danielle Drelinger of the Times-Picayune noted the following based on the only available data on voucher school outcomes for 2014-15:
The Louisiana Education Department released scores Thursday (Dec. 17) for 37 of the state’s more than 130 voucher schools. These are the larger programs, which educated about two thirds of the 7,382 voucher students. The state does not calculate scores for the other schools because they don’t have enough students taking tests. …
Several indicators were still low in 2015:
- If the voucher schools were their own school system, it would be the fifth-worst of 76 in the state.
- Sixteen voucher schools scored fewer than 50 points out of a total of 150. In most years, that would grade out as an F on the state’s public school grading scale. …
So, the safe discussion to have is about gains… gains from pathetically, embarrassingly failing to less-pathetic, less-embarrassing failure, kind of like half-drowning but trying to pass it off as progress toward competitive-swim quality:
But Education Department officials said the program was moving in the right direction: …
- Despite the low absolute ranking, “The scholarship program’s increases in student achievement outpaced the majority” of public school systems,” Education Department officials wrote in a fact sheet.
Sure, on the whole, Louisiana’s voucher schools are flunkie, but in 2015, at a greater cost to the public than the public schools that they are trailing, voucher schools are, uh, less flunkie.
Let’s look at some numbers derived from that 2016-17 voucher application data file.
7,807 students who met the qualification for income eligibility applied for vouchers in 2016-17, where income eligibility means that the household income cannot exceed 250 percent of the federal poverty guidelines. Of that 7,807, only 588 (7.5 percent) identified as attending a local-board-controlled public school the previous school year.
So much for droves of students fleeing traditional public schools when given “choice.”
Note also that the 7,807 includes students who applied in previous years. (More on this below.)
483 students identified as kindergarteners and listed no prior school. So, even if one says that this entire K group is fleeing the idea of a failing traditional public school, that number accounts for only 6 percent of the total 7,807 of income-qualified, 2016-17 applicants.
Here is a grade breakdown of the 7,807 students seeking 2016-17 vouchers:
- grade K: 722 students
- grade 1: 940 students
- grade 2: 1,151 students
- grade 3: 888 students
- grade 4: 971 students
- grade 5: 700 students
- grade 6: 578 students
- grade 7: 514 students
- grade 8: 435 students
- grade 9: 316 students
- grade 10: 279 students
- grade 11: 201 students
- grade 12: 112 students
If one considers the numbers above and the tapering off of voucher numbers from grades 4 to 12, it appears that the Louisiana voucher program is primarily an elementary-school-age phenomenon.
The limited interest in 2016-17 vouchers is also concentrated in certain districts/cities. Concerning the 588 students who indicated attending a local-board-run public school the previous year, 250 (42.5 percent) attended schools in East Baton Rouge Parish.
As for the 6,736 students indicating attending a school that was not a local-board-controlled public school the previous year, 2,783 (41 percent) attended a Catholic school that was part of the New Orleans Diocese. Another 758 (11 percent) identified as attending a Catholic school that was part of the Baton Rouge Diocese.
The high percentage of 2016-17 voucher applications from students already attending Catholic school in New Orleans does not support the corporate-reformer-promoted image of a miraculous, successful, all-charter Recovery School District (RSD) in New Orleans.
In other words, by far the biggest city feeding the Louisiana voucher program is the one in which the state assumed control of almost all schools just after Hurricane Katrina (2005) and systematically converted them from local-board-controlled community-based schools into splinters of who-knows-charter-management-operated schools in the name of charter school superiority.
(An aside: Legislation passed in 2016 is supposed to systematically return the charters to the local school board. I have read the legislation, and it is possible for charters to once again become traditional, community schools. However, the legislation also makes the Orleans Parish School Board, or OPSB, more of a target for out-of-state, billionaire corporate-reformer bucks to flow in order to secure a board sympathetic to, at most, replacing charter with charter with charter.)
As for Louisiana vouchers: Very fiscally beneficial to Louisiana’s Catholic schools. A total of 4,189 out of 6,736 students (62 percent) who applied for vouchers in 2016-17 were already attending Catholic schools using vouchers. At approximately $5,300 per student as noted in the Brookings article linked above, that equals a potential $22.2 million in 2016-17.
And voucher use for Catholic school attendance is concentrated in certain regions. The Louisiana voucher program mostly sends kids in certain areas (New Orleans, Baton Rouge, Alexandria, Houma-Thibodaux, Lafayette, Lake Charles) to Catholic school (as opposed to vouchers being used more uniformly across the entire state to send students to Catholic school.)
On the voucher application, parents are able to indicate in order of preference several schools at which they would be willing to use the voucher to send their children. Since the data has been de-identified for the sake of student privacy, the first choice of school provides the best indicator of the area in which the voucher student resides.
Note that students already receiving vouchers to attend a school only need to submit an application if they wish to change schools. The 7,807 income-eligible applicants for 2016-17 include
- 1,832 students approved in 2013;
- 1,523 approved in 2014;
- 946 in 2015;
- 1,420 in 2016, and
- 2,086 that mysteriously have no application date listed.
The 2016-17 voucher application file includes 1,531 “first choice” requests for certain voucher schools. Assuming that all 1,420 of the new-to-program, 2016 applicants listed a “first choice” school, that would leave a possible 111 who accepted vouchers in previous years and who want to change schools in 2016-17. (This is only an assumption; I have not fully audited the data file, and I am suspicious of that 2,086 voucher applicants with no application date included. Two thoughts come to mind: Padding the application numbers and/or sloppy record keeping.)
Let us focus on the 1,531 applications that included a first choice for a 2016-17 voucher school and particularly where the vouchers are being used. Based on information already noted in this post, it is no surprise that the largest concentration of first-choice requests (318, or 20.8 percent) was for schools in New Orleans, as part of the New Orleans Archdiocese.
Also no surprise is that the next largest concentration (232, or 14.6 percent) was for schools in Baton Rouge, as part of the Baton Rouge Diocese. Finally, the third largest concentration was also in Baton Rouge, at Hosanna Christian Academy (202, or 13.2 percent).
These three 2016-17 first-choice requests for voucher schools are concentrated in New Orleans and Baton Rouge, and they account for just shy of half of all first-choice requests for 2016-17 (752, or 49.1 percent).
In closing, a few points:
- The 7,807 voucher students who qualify based on income are not all new to the program. Only 1,420 are noted as new applicants for 2016-17.
- Only 588 students applying for 2016-17 vouchers attended a local-board-operated public school in 2015-16. That does not even average to 9 students per school district. (Louisiana has 69 local school districts.) However…
- …Louisiana vouchers are not popular statewide. New Orleans and Baton Rouge are the principal cities where students are using vouchers.
- Most Louisiana vouchers are being used at Catholic schools.
- Most voucher students are elementary school students, and the Louisiana voucher program appears to be dependent upon first-time kindergarteners for its survival.
Now, all of this choice is supposed to pay off in the corporate-reform currency of success, the *high test score.* But high test scores are not a hallmark of the Louisiana voucher program, and they certainly are not a hallmark for the all-charter New Orleans RSD whose would-be students are grossly over-represented among voucher users– which only serves to prove that what matters is choice for choice’s sake– and that failure really is an option.