In one of the broadest moves toward the privatization of public education, Louisiana has opened its school vouchers to schools statewide with the majority of participating schools in the New Orleans and Baton Rouge areas. The program looks to benefit 7,400 students in low-income situations around the state.
“We are changing the way we deliver education,” Governor Bobby Jindal said to Reuters. “We are letting parents decide what's best for their children, not government.”
So far, 125 schools have signed up for the program with all but one being a private school. The program is designed to allow parents with lower incomes in to move their children from failing schools by providing tuition vouchers.
“The program is open to any parent whose child is entering kindergarten or whose child currently attends a C, D, or F-rated school and who meets the income requirement of 250 percent of the federal poverty line,” State Superintendent of Schools John White said to WVUE News in New Orleans.
That would mean that, for example, a family of four would have to make under $60,000 in order to qualify for the program.
Many of the schools that are participating in the program are private, Christian schools, which have the potential to draw some concern. However, the U.S. Supreme court has ruled that states can provide vouchers for religious education, so long as the state does not promote one religion over another and allows parents to make the ultimate decision of where their child attends.
“We feel like we could process and help those families and give them exposure to a Christian education,” Northeast Louisiana Baptist School principal Anita Watson said to The New Star. “As long as the state was willing to give us permission to be who we are, then the program is something we could work with and we are willing to help.”
Because of this and other reasons, the program has drawn some opposition with some teachers and parents preparing to file suit against the state. Teachers unions are currently weighing their options as they feel that the state is improperly diverting funds from public schools into private schools.
“Because it's private, it's considered to be inherently better,” Steve Monaghan, president of the Louisiana Federation of Teachers said to Reuters. “From a consumer perspective, it's buyer beware.”
Because private school have not had to operate under public school standards, this has many opponents worried. And while students under the new voucher system will have to take standardized tests with the school reporting them, it is unclear whether there are any consequences for failing grades.
In spite of this opposition, the schools that have signed on to participate feel that this will help education programs in the long run.
“From the very beginning, since we heard about the program, we decided we wanted to be part of it,” Joe Wiederholt, principal at St. Frances Cabrini said to The Town Talk in Alexandria, La. “Our school has always been here, since 1948, for people who had difficulties at other schools. We're still here for children who need us, to come and have the same opportunities our children have.”
The students with families using the voucher program will begin attending these schools this fall.
“This is a promising start to a program that will provide thousands of opportunities for families,” White said to Business Week.
James Dugan is a writer for 360 Education Solutions