The recent release of state testing results revealed that Louisiana students attending private schools through Governor Jindal's school voucher program perform a whopping 30 points below average. Only 40% of these students leave the year performing at or above grade level. As the news made rounds locally and in the education community, state Superintendent John White defended the program.
"Anytime you start something new, it's going to take some time to grow," said White.
As Louisiana taxpayers foot the program's $25 million bill, Governor Jindal and Superintendent White must quickly justify its cost. The pressure to defend private interventions grows as students and educators in New Orleans continue to demonstrate how public schools can innovate to improve performance. Unless voucher students catch up rapidly, the Louisiana Department of Education should prepare to kill the program.
To understand these results in context, imagine voucher students represent their own school district. In terms of leading children who perform at or above grade level, this district would rank 70th out of 73 throughout Louisiana. Those ranked 71st and 73rd are Recovery School Districts — comprised of failing schools taken over by the state. The voucher student performance gap with the state (30 points) also exceeds the largest gap ever registered by New Orleans public schools (26 points in 2000), the former sick man of Louisiana public education.
What results could we have reasonably expected? Students are eligible to apply if their families earn less than 250% of the federal poverty line and they attend a school with a C, D, or F letter score. According to a 2012 report from Tulane University's Cowen Institute, the approximate percent of students at or above grade level would be 38% or less for an F school, between 39-63% for a D school, and between 64-75% for a C school. These projections are from the 2011-2012 school year, before school letter score standards were raised.
We can assume voucher students in 2012-2013 represented a mix of students from C, D, and F schools throughout the state. The Louisiana Department of Education also believes good teachers can be expected to make 1.5 years of learning growth. Its website cites prominent research to back up this claim:
Eric Hanushek, senior fellow at Stanford University's Hoover Institution and expert on education policy found, "The difference between a good and a bad teacher is one year of learning in an academic year. A good teacher can get 1.5 years of learning growth; a bad teacher gets .5 years of learning growth. If you get a few bad teachers in a row, a student's life is altered dramatically."
By the state's own accountability expectations for teacher performance, it is hard to excuse away 40% of voucher children on grade level. To justify the performance, the Department of Education would have to make a far-fetched argument that a majority of enrolled children came from the most under-performing F schools and that 1.5 years of growth could only bring that cohort of children to 40% proficiency. The voucher district would comfortably receive an F by Louisiana's own school performance standards.
These findings are particularly disappointing when considering the progress made by the Louisiana Department of Education in public schools throughout New Orleans. This year New Orleans public schoolchildren, who used to rank at the far bottom of state performance indicators, are close to closing their gap with the Louisiana average. Behind by just 6 points (an improvement from 26 points in 2000), many education reformers predict these students will soon outperform the state. Since the largest proportion of voucher students come from New Orleans, it is hard to argue these children are better off in private schools.
Percent of Students at or Above Grade Level
Graphic from Educate Now! educatenow.net (5/22/13)
To determine whether or not vouchers are working, the burden of proof is on Governor Jindal and Superintendent White. If student performance on state tests before and after vouchers are shared — and the state can demonstrate acceptable growth — its Department of Education may have an argument to make. But without this information, and if the student performance gap with the state persists, it should be easy to see that the program is failing and must end.