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Louisiana school voucher program makes C on Center for Education Reform report card; state bristles

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Danielle Drellinger, The Times-Picayune

Louisiana’s high-profile school voucher program made a C on a national report card Wednesday, ranking seventh among 15 states. The report by the Center for Education Reform faulted Louisiana for imposing “excessively burdensome” financial requirements and state tests on schools, and for restricting eligibility to low-income students from low-performing school systems.

Louisiana tied with Florida in the rankings. Indiana, Ohio and Wisconsin earned an A; North Carolina, Arizona and the District of Columbia, B.

Gov. Bobby Jindal has fought for the Louisiana Scholarship Program against state and federal lawsuits. It lets low-income children attend participating private schools at public expense if the students come from C-, D- or F-graded schools or are entering kindergarten.

Voucher schools may not reject scholarship applicants, who take the same tests as their public school peers. The award is capped at about $8,500 this year. About 8,700 Louisiana students have been awarded scholarships for the new school year.

The Center for Education Reform takes issue with all of Louisiana’s provisions. It wants voucher programs to be open to as many children as possible, and to leave the private schools free to educate and operate as they wish.

However, Louisiana’s program “has such significant regulatory intrusion on private school autonomy – including required open enrollment for voucher students, mandatory state testing and exclusion of new private schools from participating – that the program falls fast and hard in this ranking,” the authors write. The state earned 23 points of a possible 50.

Education Department spokesman Barry Landry defended Louisiana’s methods, saying, “We stand by a program that gives access to all low-income Louisianans and that requires high levels of accountability when accepting the taxpayer dollar.”

He noted that the report did not mention the state’s tuition donation rebate program, a second, smaller scholarship that families may use for selective-admission schools.

“Our program is working,” said Jindal spokeswoman Shannon Bates. “More than 7,000 students are now attending better schools instead of being stuck in failing or underperforming schools.”

Indeed, public debate in Louisiana around vouchers has generally demanded more accountability and safeguards. Last year, critics were outraged when almost no voucher schools could account for how the money was spent. The Louisiana legislative auditor said the program needed stricter oversight.

The oversight question is being debated nationally. Countering the Center for Education Reform position, the Fordham Institute praised Louisiana last year for requiring tests. A North Carolina judge halted that state’s program last week, in part because of its minimal requirements for private schools.