Many important questions have been raised about the state’s new private school voucher program: How much will it cost taxpayers? Will private schools really provide a better education than public ones? How will anyone know, if those schools don’t receive letter grades the way public schools do?
But Crystal Robinson has one more: Why does Chez’ianne, her shy, bookish 9-year-old who likes math and wants to be a dance instructor, have to be left out?
Robinson is desperate to get Chez’ianne out of Green Park Elementary School in Metairie. Other students have been picking on her. Academically, the school is not doing all that badly — it earned a C letter grade last year in a parish where many schools are rated D or F — but Robinson worries that Chez’ianne’s teachers aren’t pushing her the way they could. She said one of Green Park’s own administrators suggested she apply for a voucher to send Chez’ianne to private school, but their letter from the state last month brought bad news. With more applicants than seats, the state resorted to a lottery and Chez’ianne’s number did not come up.
“I’ve tried e-mailing, calling, crying,” Robinson said. “I just pray to God that this doesn’t happen next year because I don’t know what I’m going to do.”
This is the reality for more than 4,000 families across Louisiana this summer. Whatever one thinks of the wisdom of using public money for private education — that debate still rages — many parents leaped at what they took to be a tantalizing opportunity for their children to escape subpar public schools when the state began taking applications for the voucher program back in the spring.
More students than vouchers
Far more students were eligible than applied. Open to any low-income family with a child slated to attend a school rated C or below, the program could technically have drawn as many as 380,000 applicants. Yet more families ultimately asked for a spot than could be accommodated at the 119 participating schools. Of the 9,750 applications deemed eligible, about 5,600 got matched to a seat.
“We’re confident schools will add seats over time,” said Nick Bolt, chief of staff to state Superintendent John White. Some private schools have decided to add students from the program one grade at a time, he said. Others have indicated “that they’d like to understand how the program works in year one, and they’ll join in year two.”
But, he added, “It’s not our goal that this program will take over all of Louisiana.”
In one sense, state officials say, the gap between applications and seats only underscores the importance of Louisiana’s other reform efforts, which will end up touching many thousands more students than the voucher program, even if they don’t draw the same level of attention or debate. There’s a new teacher evaluation system, a new set of standardized exams that are supposed to be more rigorous, and new course options for the state’s high school students, all of it coming online in the next few years.
Another year of waiting
Of course, none of this will transform Chez’ianne’s school overnight. For her and her mother and the thousands of other families that have decided their public school won’t do, there will be another year of waiting with fingers crossed to see if next summer’s lottery breaks in their favor.
“I’m a single parent working off of one income, doing everything all alone,” Robinson said. “I even tried to map it out different ways, thought about working a second job. But I’m planning to go to school in August at Delgado so I can get a degree, and there’s no way I could get two jobs to send her to private school. It’s impossible.”
Chez’ianne’s time at Green Park Elementary hasn’t been all bad. Robinson, who works as a receptionist in a doctor’s office, said she got into the school in the first place because of a program that allowed African-American students to transfer from black-majority schools into white-majority schools. They lived in the Mid-City section of New Orleans before Hurricane Katrina, then moved to Kenner with Robinson’s mother, where Chez’ianne was zoned to attend Joseph S. Maggiore Sr. Elementary.
“I don’t think she would have survived there,” Robinson said, adding. “I don’t have any hard feelings about Green Park. Everyone there knows Chez’ianne’s name. She makes excellent grades. But there’s been a lot of changes.”
After another public school closed, Robinson said, an influx of students from other areas brought friction.
Private school has always been a goal
“I’d rather go to another school,” Chez’ianne said, sitting on the couch in their apartment in a turquoise dress and rhinestone-covered sandals, the Disney Channel playing in the background. “It was fine in the first two or three years, but now it’s kind of bad. Some children, they come from bad neighborhoods and they keep messing with everybody.”
Robinson’s own memories of attending public school in New Orleans play into her decisions as well. After attending a small magnet school for junior high, Robinson said, she went to John F. Kennedy High School.
“That was a dramatic change for me,” she said. “I did not like that at all. They had all kinds of problems. Kids stabbing each other. Teachers didn’t care if you passed. They would tell you, ‘I got my education, you gotta get yours. You’re on your own.'”
For her daughter, private school has always been the goal. And with the state expanding vouchers outside of Orleans Parish for the first time this year, the opportunity finally presented itself. After Chez’ianne wound up in an altercation with another girl, Robinson said, Green Park’s vice principal told her she should apply for a voucher.
Robinson found the process frustrating. “When I was doing the application,” she said. “I couldn’t find anything to say which private school — you know, how they were scoring, academics and stuff. You couldn’t find any of that. I was just going by word of mouth. I mean, you want to know what you’re getting into. You could be jumping out of the pot into the flames.”
For privacy reasons, standardized exam scores are published online for some schools, but only those with more than 10 voucher students in a given grade.
Even with the lack of information, from what Robinson heard, she felt sure that Our Lady of Divine Providence could offer a better option. Getting in was a long shot. The school took only 17 students through the program this year. Of those who applied for any private school in Jefferson Parish, only 38 percent won seats.
In an email, Jan Lancaster, superintendent of schools for the Archdiocese of New Orleans, said principals make decisions about how many seats to open based on their “current enrollment and resources,” adding: “At this time, we are working with the Louisiana Department of Education on the possibility of making more seats available if the schools can accept them.”
For now, Robinson said she will keep hunting for another option.
“At Green, I don’t think they challenge her enough,” she said. “You tell her something and she gets it the first time. She gets bored in class. I’m just trying to find any way out because I know what she’s capable of and I want to let her be the best she can be.”