Republican Governor Bobby Jindal has launched his education reform program. Taxpayer dollars in Louisiana are being shifted from public schools to pay private schools, private businesses and private tutors.
The implementation of the program has come under severe criticism from all quarters. Everything from the quality of the schools and the school curriculum to concern over the separation of church and state is proving that privatization of the public education system is not a panacea for education reform.
Vouchers will cover the full cost of tuition at the private schools. The vouchers are supposed to cover tuition and fees at the private schools. The maximum value of each voucher, $8,800, can't exceed the sum the state would spend educating that child in public school.
Small private schools often charge as little as $3,000 to $5,000 a year. However Reuters reports that unspecified fees could bring the cost to taxpayers close to the $8,800 cap. So even as opponents of the current public education system rail against waste and fraud, private schools are moving to operate in the same wasteful and fraudulent manner.
The voucher program is made up of 120 private schools, including a range from the most prestigious private schools to small, Bible-based schools. Thousands of eligible parents will receive vouchers, but there are very few seats open in the schools. Next year the system will be expanded to include a mini-voucher system. The expansion will open the system up to nearly half of the state’s public school students. All the schools will use a lottery system for enrollment. For every enrolled student the state’s public school system will lose funding. Limited seating will force parents to enroll their children in public schools whose budgets have been depleted by the policy to shift public funds to the private industry.
The vast majority of the authorized schools in the voucher program are religious academies. This raises questions as to how this will affect the quality of education in Louisiana. Opponents of the voucher system cite that using public funds at faith-based schools violates the separation of church from state. The faith-based schools have also come under fire for their curriculum. The curriculum at some of the schools has been described as extremely anti-science and anti-history. Many of the schools teach or champion creationist non-science. The state has rigorous course requirements for secular subjects but there are no guidelines for evaluating faith-based studies like creationism.
Under the state’s voucher program, failing schools will remain eligible for state funds, and some schools will be exempt from state monitoring. Reuters reported that schools with less than 40 voucher students will not be penalized for poor scores on state standardized tests, including math, reading, science and social studies. These schools not only will remain open, they can keep the students and the money. There is small consolation in that failing schools would be barred from enrolling new students; however, public schools are closed for the same performance.
Civil liberties proponents have taken issue with the government program. First they argue that the state is not providing equal opportunity for all faith-based schools to participate in the program. The state has openly welcomed Christian based alternate education but they have refused to grant vouchers to non-Christian based schools.
TPM reported that The Islamic School of Greater New Orleans offered to accept as many as 38 voucher students, but pulled their request after state representatives objected to any funding of “Islamic teaching.”
Civil liberties proponents also found that some of the schools do not even know the basic rules regarding privacy. The Delhi Charter School policy required student’s suspected of being pregnant to take a pregnancy test. The policy was implemented 5 years after the school received its charter.
The voucher program in Louisiana highlights the difficulties involved in privatizing public education. The system does not provide equal opportunity it provides some opportunity for the lucky few who are selected for the limited seating and those few may not even get a “quality” education.