Wednesday, July 25, 2012

Accountability in the Bayou State

Earlier this year, Louisiana expanded its voucher program statewide, allowing students from low-income families attending low-performing public schools to get a scholarship to attend the private school of their parents’ choice.  The program received overwhelming support from both Democrats and Republicans in the legislature.  

But the support from families was even stronger. For the 2012-13 school year, more than 10,300 applications were submitted to the state Department of Education for a chance for a voucher. The Department of Education has announced that 5,600 students—including 1,700 renewing students from Orleans Parish—have been granted a voucher so far.  More scholarships are likely to be approved in the coming weeks.

And this week, the accountability standards for the voucher program have been approved by the state board of education.  The Board of Elementary and Secondary Education voted 9-2 to adopt the accountability provisions proposed by state Superintendent John White.

Louisiana Senator Mary Landrieu praised the state board for adopting accountability provisions, writing:

"I am encouraged by the criteria's strong emphasis on public reporting of performance data and the fact that there are consequences for nonpublic schools scoring below an established cutoff point."

The American Federation for Children strongly believes that strong academic, financial, and administrative accountability standards are integral to the success of private school choice programs.  The most effective programs across the nation—in Washington, D.C., Milwaukee, and Florida—are also the programs with the strongest accountability provisions.

Luckily for students in the Bayou State, Superintendent of Education John White believes in strong accountability standards.  In an editorial published this week, White wrote:

But empowerment is just half of the equation. On the other side is an equally important concept: accountability. To be clear, I mean accountability not in the sense of more rules and regulations from Baton Rouge and Washington. I mean accountability for outcomes and achievement. I mean accountability for producing results. Empowered people, close to children, accountable for results: That’s a formula for improvement.


And as the [voucher] program expands statewide, it is important that the program and its schools be fully accountable for student achievement and for responsible use of the public dollar. That is why today the Board of Elementary and Secondary Education (BESE) will vote on a plan for academic and operations accountability for private schools running scholarship programs.

So what will accountability look like in Louisiana?

The proposed standards for academic accountability are simple and unbending. As with traditional and charter public school students, scholarship students take state tests. As in those schools, test results are reported publicly for each school.

Programs with 10 or more scholarship students per grade, or with 40 or more total students taking state tests, receive a performance score called a Scholarship Cohort Index (this, too, is similar to the public system, though no traditional elementary or high school in our state receives a score based on a number of students as small as 40).

A failing index score one year means the school will not take more scholarship students the following year, a more rigid standard than exists in the traditional system. And for scholarship schools, similar to the traditional and charter systems, after four years, if a school’s program has failed for the majority of that time, its participation is put on hold until the school demonstrates it’s back on track.

Perhaps most important, the proposal states that any participating school unable to demonstrate “basic academic competence” may be immediately declared ineligible to participate.

The business and operations rules proposed are equally strong. Among them are guidelines to ensure that schools grow their enrollments at a responsible pace, that tuitions likewise grow responsibly, and that schools use scholarship funds solely for the educational benefit of scholarship students.

- American Federation for Children | Alliance for School Choice, MSG

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