Can Private School Vouchers Live Up to Their Promises?

• Bureau of Governmental Research

Overview

As part of a proposed education reform package for the 2012 legislative session, the Governor is proposing a statewide, K-12 school voucher program. The vouchers would be available to children who come from families with incomes at or below 250% of the federal poverty level (about $58,000 for a family of four) and who are either entering kindergarten or attending a school with a performance grade of C, D or F.
The statewide voucher program (the Statewide Program) would dramatically expand and modify a pilot program that has been in effect in Orleans Parish since 2008 (the Pilot Program). That program currently serves 1,832 students. According to the Governor’s office, students in more than 70% of Louisiana’s schools would be eligible for vouchers under the Statewide Program.
This report will review the voucher phenomenon, both as it has unfolded around the country and in the New Orleans Pilot Program, and analyze the proposed Statewide Program in that context. It will examine the key issues lawmakers must address in order to create a voucher program that lives up to its promises. And it will make recommendations aimed at laying a strong structural foundation for vouchers.

Key Findings

The Statewide Program’s structure suffers from serious defects:
• The student eligibility parameters are too broad.
• The school eligibility parameters are too lax.
• There are no academic accountability provisions.
• The financial structure of the program could hurt public schools.
Under the proposed program, a student could use a voucher to transfer from an average-quality public school to a low-quality
private school with no track record or qualifications. The student’s academic performance could decline, and the state would impose no penalties on the school. And taxpayers would foot the bill for all of it.

Recommendations

• Restrict participation in the program to students who:
– Come from families that would not otherwise be able to afford private school; and
– Either attend a public school with a school performance grade of “D” or “F,” or would be forced into such a school in the coming year by virtue of attendance zones or other restrictions.
• Limit program participation to schools that outperform the group of public schools from which voucher students are exiting. To achieve this end, the state should establish appropriate academic eligibility standards and mandate the rigorous testing needed to determine whether a school meets them. All schools should be required to meet the standards as a prerequisite to program participation and to maintain them thereafter. Schools that fail to maintain the specified standards should lose their program eligibility.
• If start-up schools are allowed to participate, limit the percentage of voucher students in a start-up school to 20% of its student body until such time as the school has demonstrated its ability to meet the above standards for program participation.
• Require that the voucher students at a participating school collectively outperform the group of public schools from which voucher students are exiting. Schools that fail to meet this standard within a reasonable period of time should be prohibited from accepting additional voucher students.
• Fund vouchers through the state general fund, rather than the MFP.

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