Matters of Choice: Options in Louisiana | LPB

Jalen is a seventh-grader at The Good Shepherd School – a private, Catholic institution. She transferred from a failing public school three years ago and sees big differences between the two.

“The classrooms are smaller; the teachers really care; really, really, care about you,” Jalen says, “They want to see you excel.”

For Jalen’s mother, Krystal, the plan to move her daughter was hatched in the fourth grade.

“They weren’t assisting her or helping her or guiding me to what I need to do to help her so she was failing.” Krystal says, “So they suggested maybe she should be in special ed.”

Determined Jalen just needed some extra help, Krystal searched for a better public school in the area.

“I looked all over New Orleans – Jefferson Parish – that were in the vicinity of our home or my work place..” Krystal recounts, “And all the schools that I was finding were failing.”

On the advice of a coworker, Krystal looked into the Louisiana Scholarship Program. The family meets the income requirements, plus, Jalen was attending a public school that had a rating of C, D, or F. Jalen received the voucher and Krystal used it to get Jalen into The Good Shepherd where she has flourished.

“She went from being in the fifth grade with a third-grade reading level to above.” Krystal says, “She passed and exceeded where her reading level should have been at by the time she finished the school year.”

Jalen is one of more than seven thousand students who are choosing to use the state voucher program, just one of several school choice options for Louisiana parents.

“Not only do we enjoy the Louisiana scholarship program; we have the Louisiana tax rebate program; we have school choice for students with exceptionalities; we also have options for those families that decide home schooling is the right method for their child.” says Ann Duplessis.

Ann Duplessis is president of the Louisiana Federation for Children that promotes school choice for low and middle-income families. A former state senator, Duplessis was not originally a school choice advocate.

“When the idea was first presented in the legislature, I actually killed the first piece of legislation that was presented because I didn’t actually understand it.” Duplessis remembers.

After appeals from families in the New Orleans area suffering under a dysfunctional school board, Duplessis ultimately sponsored legislation in 2008 creating a pilot voucher program in the city. The program went statewide in 2012.

Funding for the program was originally to come from the state’s per-pupil allotment. After a successful court challenge by the Louisiana Federation of Teachers, the money now comes from the state general fund. In 2015, the legislature voted to provide 42 million dollars for Louisiana’s school choice program.

“We’re really looking at a problem where the state proffers a lot of money,” Steve Monaghan says, “And they have no ability to track these programs to see if they’re delivering on what the promise was.”

Steve Monaghan is president of the Louisiana Federation of Teachers. He argues that schools that accept vouchers are not obligated to provide information to parents on things such as academic achievement like traditional public schools are. The evidence that is available, Monaghan says, points to a flawed system.

“There was a study that recently came out from the National Bureau of Economic Research that basically just declared it a failure.” Monaghan says, “That the students in the program are more prone to failure and losing ground in regard to student achievement than the students in the public schools they left.”

Monaghan also says the concept of choice is ultimately in the hands of the voucher school, not the parent.

“If your child is fortunate or unfortunate enough to be admitted to one of these schools; the school still has the right to say you don’t fit our model.” Monaghan points out. “We’re having that problem with special needs children. The private parochial schools simply say we don’t have the resources to educate those children.”

Duplessis counters that, with changes, the legislation can be more accommodating to special needs children.

“I like to say we didn’t write this legislation in ink; but in pencil.” Duplessis notes. “We have the ability to make it a better program.”

She also criticizes the National Bureau of Economic Research study for its measure of success.

“Unfortunately the measurement, the program only gave that school – the voucher school- one year to bring a child from two or three grade levels below where they should be; up to grade point.” Duplessis says, “That in many cases is impossible.”

Duplessis notes that if the performance of all voucher students was measured like a district, it would rank ninth in Louisiana for improvement. And when it comes to money, the voucher program has saved the state over 21 million dollars

“The state is spending $8500 on every child who wishes to go to or forced to go to a public school.” Duplessis points out, “The average tuition that the voucher has funded has been about $4,800 to $5,000. So when you look at the savings – $3,000 per child – we have saved the state millions and millions of dollars.”

Despite the debate, Krystal is certain Jalen would be failing if she hadn’t left her previous school. And her self-esteem would be plummeting, instead of continuing to rise…

“It’s out the roof…it’s out the roof!” Krystal says, “She feels like she can conquer anything and that’s what I want her to feel like!”

This report is supported by a grant from the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.

Related: Other stories in our “Matters of Choice” series.

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