Friday, December 20, 2013

Louisiana Scholarship Program Audit: Much Ado?

By Whitney Marcavage
Policy Director 
American Federation for Children

In some circles, much is being made of the recently released legislative audit of Louisiana’s Scholarship Program, a statewide voucher program that allows low-income families with children zoned to attend failing public schools the option to attend a participating private school or high-performing public school of their choice. 

Currently, about 6,750 such students are participating in the program, 86 percent of whom are African-American. These are kids who need educational options. It is worth keeping in mind that a multi-year, scientifically-based evaluation of a similar school choice programin Florida has consistently found that the scholarship program in that state serves students whotend to come from lower-performing public schools prior to entering the program. Likewise, as in prior years, they tend to be among the lowest-performing students in their prior school, regardless of the performance level of their public school.”

The legislative audit itself makes clear the high demand for the program – student participation increased 269 percent from school year 2011-12 2013-14, the two years since the program was expanded to serve students statewide beyond Orleans Parish – including a 38 percent jump in enrollment since last year. 

The audit makes three main recommendations, namely that the Louisiana Department of Education (LDOE) should:
  1. Develop specific criteria for determining whether schools have both the academic and physical capacity to serve the number of scholarship students they request;
  2. Develop more specific criteria for removing a school from the program based on academic performance; and
  3. Mandate that participating school separately account for their scholarship funds and place schools on probation when they fail to comply with the audit provisions.

By digging into the audit and reading LDOE’s response to the specific recommendations, it is clear just how much the LDOE is committed to implementing the program well. The Louisiana Scholarship Program is a nationwide leader among educational choice programs on the strength of its academic transparency and accountability. One can see from the LDOE’s response to the three audit recommendations that the Department is willing to address identified weaknesses and has already moved to strengthen fiscal requirements of participating schools.  

As LDOE points out in its response to Recommendation 1, when a school requests to increase their scholarship enrollment by 50 or more new students or 125 percent of total enrollment, the Department must review the school’s demonstrated capacity to effectively serve students. LDOE notes that in “the year audited, 54 out of 118 participating schools made such requests and received such reviews.” However, LDOE agrees with the recommendation and states that they “are committed to continuously increasing the efficiency and rigor of the school capacity review process.”

In disagreeing with Recommendation 2 regarding the need for more specific criteria for barring a school based on academic performance, LDOE states that in 2012-13, the Department barred seven schools from taking on new students due to poor academic performance. In doing so, they “used specific, quantitative criteria…participation in the program for at least two years, at least 10 tested students, and proficiency ratings of less than 25 percent.” Looks like LDOE has this one under control.

The audit’s Recommendation 3 relates to financial accountability and essentially says that participating schools should be required to account separately for their scholarship funds and place schools on probation when they fail to comply with the audit provisions. The Department partially agrees with the recommendation stating that “while the law does not mandate that schools separately account for scholarship funds, in 2013-14, the Department has required participating schools to separately account for the scholarship funds either through the use of a separate bank account for scholarship funds or segregated accounting within the schools’ accounting systems.” LDOE has already addressed the issue of requiring that participating schools separately account for their scholarship funds for this current 2013-14 school year forward.

All and all, this is certainly not a “sky is falling audit.” LDOE can, and is, tightening up requirements and implementation procedures to make the Louisiana Scholarship Program more accountable, but there is nothing damning in this audit.  

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