The debate over how to ensure the quality of private schools that accept public tax dollars as a part of the Louisiana’s expanded voucher program entered a somewhat unexpected new phase Tuesday. The state’s top education official, Superintendent John White, signaled that the Louisiana Department of Education will tighten the rules governing who can maintain a state-sanctioned private school in the first place. That would establish a new bar for private schools to clear before accepting students through the voucher program, buttressing an accountability plan that White introduced last month that will measure test results on the back end and exclude schools that can’t perform up to a certain level over time.
The changes will not affect schools participating in the voucher program this school year, but could potentially whittle the number of schools allowed to accept vouchers beginning next fall.
The department’s plans came up Tuesday during committee meetings of the state Board of Elementary and Secondary Education. With a board committee set to OK six new private schools for the 2012-2013 school year, Board President Penny Dastugue offered a substitute motion asking the board to defer until after the panel’s October meeting, when White plans to introduce an updated process for granting such approvals.
Both Dastugue and White said explicitly that they will take a second look at the approval process because the voucher program has raised the stakes, giving any approved private school the chance to receive tax dollars.
“Conditions have changed such that this process now has greater importance,” White said. “Thus the department has said we’re going to take a look at this process.”
White has already alluded to these changes publicly. Existing state policy gives him broad leeway to cut schools from the voucher program that the department decides may endanger the “academic welfare, health or safety of children.”
But White has not talked much about what the new formal approval process will entail, and the debate over vouchers in the past few months has centered largely on the plan that White released in July, which will assign private schools that accept 40 or more voucher students a performance score and require that they hit a certain bar to maintain funding.
The approval process that White plans on tweaking later in the fall covers any private school in the state looking to get public funding for textbooks, special education and other services. Overall, there are about 385 private schools that submit to this review each year, turning in information on their curriculum, teacher qualifications and finances.
And according to state law, only schools that receive the state’s OK through this process can accept vouchers.
“The process is one that in the past has had a rubber stamp feel to it,” said Robert Travis Scott, president of the Public Affairs Research Council. “So if all of these new reforms have somehow brought us to the point where we’re taking a more rigorous look at private schools, that may not be a bad thing.”
As it stands, the approval process is governed by a sparse entry in BESE’s policy books.
It includes two main provisions: that the private school in question does not discriminate based on race, per a state rule known as Brumfield vs. Dodd, and that the school “be a nonprofit institutional day or residential school that provides elementary education, secondary education, or both.”
It’s not clear yet exactly what additions White has in mind. Doing a comprehensive review on the quality of 385 schools each year may be more than the Department of Education and BESE can manage.
Speaking in general terms, White said in an interview Tuesday that new policy language will spell out certain “red flags” that could trigger closer scrutiny at one school or another.
He offered as an example the New Living Word School in Ruston, a small school that has drawn intense media scrutiny for applying to take several hundred voucher students without yet having the facilities to accommodate them. White said his department has signed a memorandum of understanding with the school requiring a quarterly performance review.
“Rather than trying to do the same review at all 385 schools, we’ll look for schools that are experiencing real challenges with even basic compliance,” White said.
This new step won’t satisfy every observer who worries that substandard private schools will end up with taxpayer money through the voucher program.
Peter Reichard, projects manager at the Bureau of Governmental Research, argued that even with a more stringent approval process, private schools won’t be held to quite the same bar as public schools. Public schools can technically accept vouchers from students looking to transfer, he pointed, out, but only if they earn an A or a B in the state’s letter grading system. Private schools can accept vouchers with the equivalent of a D or a C.
Still, Reichard said the new approval policy seems like a step in the right direction.
“I agree that the stakes are higher,” he said. “You might have private schools coming out of the woodwork to take advantage of vouchers, and if those schools are of poor quality, you’re not only wasting tax dollars, you’re throwing away precious years of a child’s education.”